(My) Astronomy Picture(s) of the Day

Well, I finally made the plunge! I deforked my LX200R 10" Meade and put it on an MyT Paramount equatorial mount. I had been struggling to decide what to do next for a while. However, I realized it was my inability to do longer exposures that was preventing me from advancing further, whether I wanted to do narrow-band imaging or simply create deeper exposures of some of the most beautiful objects in the Universe. You can still get to my earlier images from links below, or see my best images organized by category through the icons. Since the beginning of 2020, I've added a 12" Classic Meade SCT to my set of instruments, and have finally gotten my very first cooled camera - the ZWO ASI2600mc, a color cooled CMOS camera with twice the sensitivity of my T3i and a chip just as big!

It's an exciting time to be an amateur astronomer! The technology we have at our fingertips is staggering in its maturity and its very reasonable cost. You can now see and explore the farthest reaches of our Universe from your own backyard with instruments that rival those of professional astronomers only a few decades ago. And my goal hasn't changed - to explore and document this fantastically beautiful Universe from within. I hope some of that effort is on display here!

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Index to this feature page:

Andromeda Galaxy in HA | NGC2403 in Camelopardalis | Globulars M92 and M13 in Hercules | WBL130 - Galaxy Cluster in Lynx | Mars Oppositions from 2016-2022 | Jupiter - Near Opposition 2022 | M27 - The Dumbbell Nebula | Spring Dwarf Galaxies | IC342 - The Hidden Galaxy | M81 - Bode's Galaxy | Abell4_w&wo_L-eNhance_Filter | Long_Exposure_Galaxy_Images | M57_wLEnhanceFilter | Abell39_wLEnhanceFilter | Arp117_Arp79_NGC5490 | NGC3521_BubbleGalaxy | M3_ComparedViews | M97_wLEnhanceFilter | NGC2371_wLEnhanceFilter | M1_wLEnhanceFilter | B26,B27,B28,vdB31_Jan-8-2021 | Jupiter-and-Saturn-Conjunction_Dec-21-2020 | NGC672,IC1727_Dec-10-2020 | M33_Nov-18-2020 | NGC891_Sept-19-2020 | M106_Apr-22-2020 | IC5217_Nov-28-2019


Picture of the Day: The Andromeda Galaxy M31 in Hydrogen Alpha!


M31 in Hydrogen Alpha by Terry Riopka Zoom

My first attempt at combining hydrodgen alpha images with RGB! Andromeda has always been my favorite galaxy. A galaxy twin with another Terry looking back at me. I combined about 1.5h of RGB with 3h of HA using an L-enhance filter on my ASI2600mc camera. All images were 3 min unguided exposures over several nights in mid November (2023) using my Paramount MyT mount and 12inch Meade LX200 w focal reducer. With my relatively small FOV, I could only get one half of M31. We'll see if I have the tenacity to put it together with its other half!

I've convinced myself combining HA with RGB really is more of an art than a science, especially when trying to use the HA from an L-enhance filtered image. The main idea is to try to isolate (as well as possible) the HA signal in the red channel of the L-enhance image. You'll see all sorts of heuristic formalae on the net to do that, but the general goal is to find a way to somehow A. subtract the stars and B. to subtract what might be non-HA red signal. (A) can be accomplished by subtracting the stars from the red channel L-enhance image using e.g. StarNet++ or something analogous. (B) can be accomplished by (roughly) subtracting the RGB red channel from the red channel L-enhance image. The latter is a little more complicated than that, but that's the general idea. Finally, adding the HA to the RGB is done through pixel math, weighting the isolated HA signal in anyway that pleases you. After all, what matters the most is how the image looks to you.

You can mouse-over the image to see my relatively unprocessed L-enhance image and HA regions more clearly. I sacrificed some of the HA detail to get a "prettier" final image, but I liked the warmer color and almost liquid-like texture of the core. The HA image just seemed so cold and sterile to me, like the hydrogen emitting it.

NGC2403 - Caldwell 7  by Terry Riopka

Strikingly similar to M33, this spiral galaxy is called NGC2403 (or Caldwell 7) and is located in Camelopardalis. It is about 8 million light years away and about 50,000 light years in diameter. Discovered by William Herschel, it was the first galaxy beyond the Local Group within which a Cepheid was discovered. The galaxy has a halo of ionized gas above its plane with evidence of vertical outflows and inflows of gas from/into its core that supports a "galactic fountain" hypothesis for its origin. The "fountain" is thought to be fueled by either stellar activity or supernovae.

The image is a 17hr exposure consisting of 365 3min unguided images taken through my 12inch Meade classic on my beautiful Paramount MyT. I took the images using my ASI2600mc on a series of nights in the first two weeks of November 2023 from my Concord, MA backyard.

I had originally planned to combine data from L-enhanced filtered images to enhance the multiple HII regions, but with over 17h of data, I really didn't need to! My workflow was pretty typical, SPCC, followed by BlurXTerminator, and EZ Denoising. I then extracted the stars using StarNet, applied a generalized hyperbolic stretch (which I'm getting much better at), then local histogram equalization, a blur to the background, followed by the use of the DarkStructures script and some nonlinear histogram adjustments. After recombining the image with the stars, I did some minor tweaks to the saturation and graylevels.


M92 - Globular Cluster by Terry Riopka Zoom M13 - Great Globular by Terry Riopka Zoom

Two of the most spectacular globular clusters in the northern sky, M92 and M13 in Hercules! I revisited both of these using my 12" Meade and my ASI2600mc cooled camera this summer. What a difference between these and my previous much shorter exposures! You can see the difference by moving your mouse across the two images. The exposures this time were about 2.5hr and 5.7hr respectively (vs. 15min and 26min respectively before), using 3min unguided exposures on my Paramount MyT.

Both of these were stacked in DeepSkyStacker and processed in Pixinsight. I still struggle with getting the colors right in my globulars, and, despite using the SPCC (Spectrophotometric Color Calibration) in PI, I still end up using SCNR to remove excessive green signal from my images. Finally, I have to say it again, BlurXTerminator really saves quite a bit of time in processing. Provided you are conservative in how you use it, it continues to do an outstanding job in deconvolution, resulting in nice, crisp star images with no noticeable artifacts.

WBL130 Galaxy Cluster in Lynx by Terry Riopka

This is a small cluster of galaxies in Lynx called WBL 130 in the WBL catalog, referred to as the Catalog of Nearby Poor Clusters of Galaxies of White et al. (1999).White's group identified about 732 nearby "poor clusters" of galaxies consisting of three or more galaxies with photographic magnitudes brighter than 15.7. The magnitude cutoff implicitly limits their redshift and distance. Why create yet another catalog for this class of galaxy clusters? They are thought to be important as building blocks of clusters and superclusters, and relevant to understanding the formation and evolution of large-scale structure in the universe. The larger members here are thought to be about 300 million light years away based on their redshift. However there are a large number of other galaxies much further away in this beautiful 10' x 10' field of view.

This image is a 9hr exposure consisting of 179 3min unguided images taken through my 12inch Meade classic on my beautiful Paramount MyT. I took it back in Nov. of 2022 from my Concord, MA backyard.

I initially criticized BlurXTerminator for not divulging enough detail about the training methodology used to develop the deep learning net, but I've convinced myself through more reading and my own empirical tests that it seems to be doing what it claims it does, and that is accurately estimate the local deconvolution parameters necessary to adaptively deconvolve the image. And it really does a pretty outstanding job. It particularly excels at galaxy cluster images like this one, where it locally deconvolves the star regions without touching the galaxy structures. So I finally broke down and purchased a license. I admit the $100 is a little steep for an add-on, and I resisted on principle. However, I cannot deny it saves me a significant amount of time, performing deconvolution as well or better than I can manually and in a much shorter period of time - so there it is.


Mars Opposition in 2016 video by Terry Riopka Mars Opposition in 2016 by Terry Riopka
Mars - Dark Blue Filter video by Terry Riopka Mars - Dark Blue Filter by Terry Riopka
Mars Opposition in 2020 video by Terry Riopka Mars Opposition in 2020 by Terry Riopka
Mars Opposition in 2022 video by Terry Riopka Mars Opposition in 2022 by Terry Riopka

Interesting side by side comparison of Mars oppositions (from top to bottom)in May 2016, August 2018, October 2020, and December, 2022. Video images are shown on the left, and the corresponding stacked and post-processed images are shown on the right. Each video is 2-3 minutes long. The top two were taken using a Celestron Skyris 132c camera, through a Powermate 2.5X on a 10" LX200R Meade scope, then stacked in Registax. The more recent two were taken using an ASI385mc camera, through a Powermate 2.5X on a 12" LX200 Meade scope, then stacked using AutoStakkert. AutoStakkert is definitely the better of the two, although I still used Registax for the wavelet enhancement. Note the clear difference in the atmospheric conditions associated with the acquired videos, and directly correlated with the quality of the final image. You can see significantly more jitter and distortion in the top video as compared to the lower ones. This is also reflected in the amount and clarity of the detail visible in the final post-processed images. The size difference between the four is also quite noticeable. The Mars opposition in 2018 (second from the top) was a perihelic opposition, which means that the 2018 opposition occurred with Mars not only closest to the Earth, but also closest to the Sun, resulting in one of the closest oppositions since 2003! At the time of the image acquisitions (May 12, 2016, August 7, 2018, October 31, 2020 and December 5, 2022) apparent Mars diameters were 17.6", 24.1", 20.1" and 17.1" respectively, differences clearly visible in the four sets of images. More detailed imaging information for the four stacked images (and their videos) are available here: Mars at opposition in 2016, Mars at opposition in 2018, Mars at opposition in 2020, and Mars at opposition in 2022.

Jupiter, Ganymede and Io by Terry Riopka Io Moon Transit by Terry Riopka
Bands of Jupiter by Terry Riopka Io and Jupiter's Redspot by Terry Riopka
Bands of Jupiter by Terry Riopka Bands of Jupiter by Terry Riopka

I decided to dedicate almost two months to Jupiter this year, hoping to get some momentary clarity in the Boston skies. I would not have had the patience without my remote setup, I can definitely tell you that - taking planet videos from inside the house definitely makes the entire process more manageable. I also invested in an Atmospheric Distortion Corrector (ADC) for the first time, to correct the red/blue color offset due to the low planet altitude. Surprisingly, I think the ADC also led to noticeably better focus, so I have to recommend it for serious planetary work.

So this is a sampling of some of the best results I was able to get this year, between Aug. 30 and Oct. 7. The weather was never great, but I had some better than average moments, giving me these. I used an ASI385mc on my 12 inch Meade Classic, with a 2.5X Powermate and an ADC, giving me about 7620mm focal length and about 0.1 arc seconds/pixel images scale. I also transitioned to using AutoStakkert (instead of Registax) and even tried my hand at Winjupos! (which is not as complicated as it looks).

The two images on the left and two on the bottom show some outstanding detail in Jupiter's bands, some of the best I've been able to get so far. I was even able to get some detail on Ganymede and Io! I was always skeptical of others who claimed to be able to do that, but I convinced myself that what I was seeing were real details and not artifacts of the processing. The colors of Io and Ganymede certainly came out nicely. The top right shows an Io moon transit on Aug. 30 and the middle right gives a nice view of Io and the red spot on Sept. 16.

Conclusions? Well atmospheric conditions still rank highest on the list as the most important and most difficult factor for successful imaging. Focus definitely next, then the ADC I was pleasantly surprised made a noticeable difference. Of course having Jupiter at a staggering 49" in diameter certainly helps!

M27 - Dumbbell Nebula in narrow band by Terry Riopka

I'm finally starting to see the allure of narrow band imaging! Here's a beautiful rendition of M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula. The Halpha and OIII signals from within the nebula really bring out some outstanding detail, shown here in a 5hr exposure I took in July, 2022. I stacked 100 3min unguided exposures with my 12inch, MyT mount and ASI2600mc cooled camera using my L-eNhance filter. I love this filter... it seems to bring out colors spanning the spectrum, allowing some very creative post processing to expose exquisite detail of the nebula's intricate structure. I'll have to try to improve upon my visible light version soon, but with results like this, it's a tough act to follow! Click on the following link for full imaging details and this next link for my visible light version to compare.

This planetary stands out for many reasons. It was the first planetary nebula ever found, by Messier, and has one of the largest diameter white dwarfs at its center. At about 1200 light years distant, its dwarf star collapsed about 15,000 years ago, ejecting the material we now see as the brightest planetary nebula in the Earth sky.

NGC4214 - Dwarf Galaxy by Terry Riopka NGC3077 - Dwarf Galaxy by Terry Riopka

These are two beautiful dwarf galaxies, each unique in their own way, NGC4214 (Canes Venatici) on the left and NGC3077 (Ursa Major) on the right. Click on the name links for imaging details.
Neither is imaged very often (I think) because they really require long exposures to bring out their beautiful detail. NGC4214 in Canes Venatici is a barred irregular galaxy larger and more luminescent than the Small Magellanic Cloud but about 10 million light years away. Its companion galaxy UGCA 276 is faintly visible in the top left part of the image. It's known to be a very active galaxy with several starburst regions in its center. NGC3077 is also a starburst dwarf galaxy just a little further at 12 million light years. Its disrupted structure suggests some sort of galaxy interaction in its past. Its young star bluish core has a small inner disk of older stars visible as a small reddish peanut shaped object in the galaxy's center. What a stunning little galaxy!

Both of these were stacked in DeepSkyStacker and processed in Pixinsight. It really is true... there's a clear inverse relationship between your exposure time and the amount of image processing needed to enhance your images!

IC342 - The Hidden Galaxy by Terry Riopka

My very first published photo in Astronomy magazine, June 2022 issue! I took this image over a period of about 2 months, accumulating about 10h of imaging time. Made with my 12inch Meade, ASI2600mc on my MyT mount, I put together almost 200 3min unguided exposures. I had to use multiple sets of flats too, so I was suprised it came out as well as it did. Evidently, I must be doing quite well with my flats! I have to admit, it was a struggle for me to start using them, but it's gotten easier...with the small visual field of an SCT, I can get away with just blue sky patches, not the white t-shirts or flat light panels that others seem to be using. Anyway...

This is nicknamed "The Hidden Galaxy" because of its location near the galactic equator, amid clouds of dust that obscure the galaxy from view. The galaxy sits nestled in a beautiful star field that I actually attenuated slightly to showcase the galaxy. The galaxy is actually about 2/3 the size of the full moon; if it were elsewhere in the sky, it would be visible to the naked eye! About 10 million light years away, this face-on spiral galaxy is about 70000 light years across and contains multiple regions of starburst activity.

In addition to my usual Pixinsight workflow, I also used, for the first time, a set of morphological operations on the stars to reduce their impact. The very bright and busy starfield almost drowns out the impact of the galaxy. The erosion on the stars softened their impact nicely to give a much softer look.

M81 - Bode's Galaxy by Terry Riopka

This is M81, also called Bode's galaxy, located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It's about 12 million light years away, with an enormous 70 million stellar mass black hole at its active center! As usual, this is an unguided exposure on my MyT consisting of 153 3min subs (7.5h) with darks, flats and flat darks. I've started using flats more often lately. They are still a pain, but getting easier. I find they simplify post-processing significantly by practically eliminating my vignetting. They seem to be necessary when capturing extended objects like M81. Admittedly, I pushed the color saturation quite a bit, but I thought the result was beautiful. The detail in this version of M81 also came out spectacularly well with my ASI2600mc on my 12 inch - no comparison to my previous much shorter exposure using my 10 inch. Its satellite galaxy, Holmberg IX, is an irregular dwarf galaxy, faintly visible here to the right of the main galaxy. I initially thought it was a smudge from a bad set of flats! Go to this link to see the full imaging details.

Abell 4 - in RGB by Terry Riopka Abell 4 - with L-eNhance  by Terry Riopka
Abell 4 - in RGB by Terry Riopka Abell 4 - with L-eNhance  by Terry Riopka

This was a fun little planetary, located in a literal sea of galaxies in the constellation Perseus. I took these unguided photos using my 12inch Meade LX200, Paramount MyT mount and my ASI2600mc cooled camera over this 2021 Thanksgiving weekend. The images on the left are in RGB only (102 min), while the images on the right are taken using my Optolong L-eNhance filter (114 min). The bottom images are closeups of the planetary from their respective images.

The small ring shows up quite clearly in both images. It was interesting that the tiny central star and its companion star on its periphery, were both completely invisible in the L-eNhance image. Either both stars emit in OIII and hence have little or no contrast against the nebula, or they're invisible in Halpha *and* OIII - either explanation is quite strange!

Overall, I was quite pleased with the images, especially because of the number of galaxies in the field of view. The detail in this small nebula (22" in diameter) also came out well I thought.


Stephans-Quintet - Arp 319 by Terry Riopka NGC7331 - Caldwell 30  by Terry Riopka
NGC4438 - Eyes Galaxy Cluster  by Terry Riopka NGC660 - Polar Ring Galaxy by Terry Riopka

Since I obtained my Paramount MyT mount, I've been able to acquire much longer exposure images, yielding not only more detail in the imaged objects but significantly more detail in the background. As a result, a slew of fainter galaxies appear in many of my more recent images, like the ones shown here. In my opinion, they add a more "existential" dimension to the objects I image, making the resulting image that much more satisfying.
These are four galaxy clusters I've imaged recently, using my 12" LX200 Meade and my cooled ASI2600mc camera, all obtained using 3min unguided exposures: a beautiful interacting group of galaxies, called Stephan's Quintet in Pegasus (top left), NGC7331 in Pegasus, with at least 6 other galaxies in the field of view (top right), NGC4438, known as the Eyes Galaxy with associated galaxies in the Markarian Chain of galaxies in Virgo (bottom left), and NGC660, known as the Polar Ring Galaxy in Pisces. The first three were obtained with about 4 hours of exposure time, while the last was obtained using about 6. You can click on the links to get more imaging info.

For anyone interested in my processing, I stacked the images in DeepSkyStacker using darks, flats and dark flats, then processed the stacked image in Pixinsight using my standard workflow: DBE, Photometric Calibration, Chrominance Noise Reduction, Masked Stretch, Luminance Noise Reduction, Deconvolution and then multiple Curve transformations. Of course I couldn't have processed these without making extensive use of masks for many of these steps, something Pixinsight lets you do with ease.


M57 - L-eNhance by Terry Riopka M57 - L-eNhance Halo Enhanced

I think planetary nebulae are some of the most interesting and varied objects in the Universe. This is the Ring Nebula in Lyra, also known as M57 or NGC6720. It's actually a football shaped nebula with layers of different gases surrounding a hot white dwarf, all embedded within a double shell of hydrogen gas, seen here in the halo surrounding the bright ring. You can see this nebula even with binoculars as a ghostly white ring about the size of a large defocussed star.

I captured this image using an Optolong L-eNhance filter through an ASI2600mc camera mounted on a 12 inch Classic Meade and Paramount MyT. It's a 5 hour exposure, processed using Pixinsight. I processed the image in two ways, once showing a more realistic differential level of brightness between the inner nebula and its outer envelopes (left) and a second time enhancing the outer envelope to match the brightness of the inner nebula and to highlight the outer envelope structure (right). I would refer to these as the scientific version (left)and the artistic version (right) with (full image details here) - for some reason, artistic embellishments of astronomical objects really bothers me - the Universe is beautiful enough without my help. But I broke my own rule this time just to showcase some beautiful structure you can only get with narrowband imaging.


Abell 39 - Optolong L-eNhance version by Terry Riopka

After 7! years I was finally able to do this planetary nebula justice. Abell 39 is a beautiful, almost perfectly spherical planetary nebula in the constellation Hercules. It has a magnitude of 13.7 making it invisible in my 10" scope and barely discernable in a contrast enhanced 50 second DSLR exposure - a nice challenge for digital imaging! I took this image over four nights, around the end of July, 2021 in Concord, MA with (full image details here). Here is my first attempt in visible light almost exactly 7 years ago with about a two hour exposure using my DSLR T3i.I struggled over 6 nights back in 2014, culling and combining hundreds of 20 second exposures to get a highly mediocre representation. The image above is about a 4.5 hour exposure taken with my 12 inch using a ASI2600mc camera and an Optolong L-eNhance filter. I think you really need an OIII filter to pull out the ethereal bluish haze of this nebula. You can see at least two galaxies right through the translucent nebula itself. What a beautifully symmetric structure! The nebula is about 7000 light years away and about 6 light years in diameter with a central star that started out similar to our own sun, but that is now in the process of forming a hot white dwarf.


Arp117, Arp79, NGC5490 by Terry Riopka Zoom

This is a very nice collection of galaxies in Bootes. The largest pair IC982/IC983 is known as Arp117. I combined 88 3 min exposures (about 4 1/2 hours) from May 11, 13 and June 4 of 2021, using my ASI2600mc on my 12 inch LX200 Meade scope and Paramount MyT. I could probably have used another 5 hours of exposure, but this year the weather just *would not* cooperate. I love the diversity of galaxies, many of which have very similar redshifts, suggesting they form a true gravitationally related cluster of galaxies. If you mouseover the image, an annotated version appears. I used Pixinsight the first time to annotate my image - what amazing functionality! The one, obvious, unannotated galaxy near the center of the image is catalogued as ASK676212.0. Full image details are here..


NGC3521 - Bubble Galaxy  by Terry Riopka

This is a spiral galaxy in Leo called NGC3521. It's also known as the Bubble Galaxy due to its very visible extended halos of gas. The halos are thought to be tidal debris and stars pulled from the main galaxy by multiple encounters between it and its various satellite galaxies in the past. This is a 6 hour exposure I took May 14, 2021 using my 12" SCT and cooled ASI2600mc camera on an MyT Paramount mount (full image details here). I like the fact that I'm able to image more background galaxies due to my much longer exposures. The detail is also decent, making visible many small pink splotches of hydrogen-alpha nebulae scattered throughout, corresponding to star forming regions in the galaxy. The galaxy has been measured to be approximately 35 million light years distant.

For those who might be interested, I used my typical Pixinsight processing (rougly in order): custom DBE, Photocalibration, Chrominance NR, Masked Stretch, Luminance NR, then multiple masks for enhancement (multi-scale and curves transformation) to emphasize local structures, e.g. core, spiral arms, extended halo, followed by a final star saturation enhancement.


M3 - NGC5272 by Terry Riopka M3 - using 10inch by Terry Riopka

Messier 3 is a prototype of a Oosterhoff type I cluster, known as a "metal-rich" globular cluster. It also contains the largest number of variable stars out all the Milky Way globulars. It has a diameter of about 180 light years, and is about 33900 light years distant. In this image, you can also see a number of very small galaxies scattered throughout the background.

I took this March 9, 2021 with my 12 inch SCT on a Paramount MyT using my ASI2600mc. Interesting comparison between this image and my last attempt (only a 10 minute exposure) with my 10 inch (right above) rotated and cropped/scaled to the same field of view. Looking at the FOVs shows you what a difference the placement of a focal reducer makes... Meade series 4000 f/6.3 on a 12 inch (left) and OPTEC Lepus 0.62X on a 10 inch(right). You would think the field of view on the 12 inch would be at best the same or smaller, but clearly I'm actually getting a larger field of view on the 12 inch!

Aside from that, I learned a new trick in PI...to get rid of magenta stars, invert the image and use SCNR...works like a charm!


M97 - Owl Nebula by Terry Riopka

M97 is a planetary nebula about 2000 light years away in the constellation of Ursa Major. At the heart of it is a white dwarf, with an 8000 year old expanding double-shell structure forming the main part of the nebula and a much fainter, larger and significantly older (~40000 year-old) halo of ionized gas. The halo is thought to be the remnant of a red giant stellar wind and is just barely visible here in the photo.

I didn't realize the Owl Nebula could look so beautiful in narrow band (in this primarily Halpha and OIII). I'd been trying for years to get a decent picture of M97, but it always seemed so amorphous and lackluster in my limited attempts. Granted, my previous attempts were all limited in exposure time using my 10 inch and without a filter, but I had still held out more hope for it. Well, my effort finally paid off with this image, a 5 hour exposure with my 12 inch using my ASI2600mc and Optolong L-eNhance filter. It was done under a quarter moon in a Bortle 5+ sky but I'm thinking now it's definitely worth trying in a darker sky. I was even able to get a hint of M97's outer nebulosity - subtle - but definitely providing just enough signal to pull out its asymmetric shape. You'll have to turn up the brightness on your monitor to catch a glimpse of it though - it was extremely hard to do the enhancement to enable it to show up in the final image. What a beautiful planetary! I also like the colors the L-eNhance seems to pull out of my ASI2600mc. I don't get the blue I'd prefer from the OIII, but the green seems to come out more readily in place of it along with the occasional yellow, which is really great. My color calibration might be off a little, but I like it, so who's to tell me it's "wrong"? ***.


NGC - Double Bubble Nebula - by Terry Riopka NGC2371 - w/wo L-eNhance Filter - w/wo Moon - by Terry Riopka

More experiments with my Optolong L-ENhance filter - I took a 3 hour exposure of NGC2371 known as the Double-Bubble/Peanut/Gemini Nebula, on Feb. 4, 2021 on a moonless night in a Bortle 5+ sky with my ASI2600mc camera using my 12 inch Classic Meade and Paramount MyT mount. Imaging details can be found here.

This is one of a handful of known planetary nebulae to have a central Wolf-Rayet star, an extremely hot, Sun-like star that has had its hydrogen atmosphere completely shed to reveal only a bare carbon-oxygen core. The central star's surface temperature is a blistering 240,000 degrees Fahrenheit and it lies at distance of about 4,300 light-years in the constellation Gemini. Apparently, this type of star in a planetary nebula is quite rare, which suggests that we don't really yet understand how such stars evolve.

I struggled with what to do about the color for this nebula. In broadband, the nebula comes out bluish, so I was tempted to shift the hue a little to get a blue tinge for the outer parts of the nebula. However the Ha and the OIII emphasis of the L-ENhance filter seems to want an reddish/orange and green tinge to it, so I left it at that, merely enhancing it somewhat. I was surprised at the nice detail I was able to pull out of it, especially comparing it to others' attempts out there with much larger scopes and longer exposures.

The images on the right show a comparison of raw images for the nebula using various combinations of data from two different nights, one completely moonless, the other with a gibbous (93% full) moon in Leo about 10deg away. The bottom row compares the same length of exposure (37 @3min per sub ~ just under two hours) with the Moon (bottom right) and without the Moon (bottom left). Comparing stars, the focus is practically identical. I would have to say I must reserve judgement on whether the difference in detail is due to atmospheric conditions or Moonlight, or a bit of both. Comparing the bottom left with the top left, both taken without the Moon, is much more straightforward. There is a clear reduction in noise going from 111min (bottom left) to 171min (top left) and the detail improves noticeably. Comparing the top left (171min) with the top right (288min) which combines data from the two nights, the result is less clear. Is it the worse data from the moonlit night that limits the quality improvement? Or is it the diminishing returns going from 3h to 5h? It's likely a little of both, but I'm tending towards the latter. Although you get detail and noise improvement going from 2 to 3 hours, I've seen much longer exposures from people with results that are the same or worse. All this says though, is that there is likely a sweet spot in terms of exposure time for all objects, but going beyond that doesn't necessarily pay.


M1 - Crab Nebula - by Terry Riopka M1 - Crab Nebula using L-eNhance Filter - by Terry Riopka

Well, I finally did it. I purchased my very first narrow-band filter, the Optolong L-eNhance and took a stab at the supernova remnant M1, known as the Crab Nebula. I was curious to see how well the filter performed in moonlight, so I took the image on the right about 1 deg away from a gibbous moon. I came to a sudden (maybe obvious) revelation. I was trying to think what I should compare this to... If I compare it to the same filtered image with no moon or without light pollution, clearly the latter will be better - so the moral here is (without even having to take a picture), better to image without the moon or without light pollution (a tad obvious). What about comparing it to a non-filtered image in either condition? Well, it's still not an apples-to-apples comparison because you are seeing completely different things!

All this rambling about how narrowband filters allow you to image in moonlight is a little bit of a red herring. The bottom line is that a narrowband filter will simply rebalance the wavelengths of light that land on your sensor. You basically *see* different things because Ha, Hbeta and OIII areas of the spectrum are enhanced at the cost of other parts of the spectrum, which happen to lie in the parts where moonlight and light pollution are most prevalent. Clearly, contrast in the image is enhanced when that light is omitted, but *THAT IS TRUE WHETHER YOU HAVE A FILTER OR NOT*. And, no matter what filter you use, you are omitting wavelengths of light that might or might not be "important" to visualize your object of interest. So ultimately, it's your object that matters and what you want to emphasize with respect to wavelength, not sky conditions!

However, that said, if your sky is worthless because of light pollution or excessive moonlight (or both), you might as well get rid of as much of it as possible, and concentrate on the wavelengths that are interesting to see in your object - but make no mistake - the object will naturally look different, but it will NOT be a cleaner version of the unfiltered one. If you're (extremely) lucky, a broadband light pollution filter will eliminate light pollution and moonlight but leave in, say, galaxy light that still makes the galaxy look similar to its unfiltered appearance - if so, great, but it needn't always be the case. In all likelihood, the broadband filter will remove the same light that makes your galaxy look like the galaxy you expect to see! So remember: Filtered image = different image, NOT Filtered image = same-but-better-unfiltered image.

Anyway, this may seem obvious to most of you out there, but my desire to do an apples to apples comparison (with filter/without) really opened my eyes to what this is all about. Imaging details are here for the unfiltered moonless-sky version of M1 and here for the L-eNhance version of M1 in a moonlit sky, both imaged in my Bortle 5+ sky.


B26,B27,B28,vdB31 - Dark Nebulae  by Terry Riopka

This is my very first dark nebula! With over 12 hours of exposure time using my new cooled ASI2600 camera, it's no wonder I hadn't tackled this object before. This is also my first time processing one in Pixinsight - it was especially important to get the DBE to work right. For that I also incorporated flats for the first time into my workflow to try to limit the vignetting and its effect on the DBE process. I'm still struggling with star halos, but hey, making progress. This is a product of several nights of images taken the first week of January, 2021. Full imaging details are here .

I also used StarNet for the first time to try processing a starless version of this nebula, then adding the stars back in. The result wasn't bad for a my first time...you can see my final image above on the bottom left, along with the starless foreground on the right, which I enhanced to showcase the nebulosity.

This is actually a set of three dark nebula: B26, B27 and B28, from Edward E. Barnard's 1919 catalog of dark nebulae. The dark nebulae are all due to the extensive interstellar dust clouds in this region of the sky, which stand out nicely against the background star field. The beautiful blue and yellow reflection nebula is vdB 31, the 31st object in Sidney van den Bergh's 1966 catalog, surrounding the stars AB and SU Aurigae. The hot blue star AB Aurigae is around 470 light years away, which Hubble has shown to be surrounded by a disk of material in the middle of planet formation!


Jupiter-Saturn Planetary Conjunction by Terry Riopka

I really didn't think the weather would cooperate, so I didn't really prepare for this. But this is the beauty of having a semi-permananent mount with a beautifully aligned scope...everything was ready to go within minutes. The clouds cleared and I ran out to uncover my scope. I hadn't even tried out my ASI2600mc for planetary imaging yet, but the standard ZWO capture program let me get it up and running just in time to catch some spectacular photos of this 1-in-800 year event. This image is what you would have seen had you looked through my 12 inch scope at 4:24PM EST on the day of the solstice. The images here (a stacked version) and here (a magnified, more focused version) are better, but I liked the spontaneity of this one - not completely in focus, but wondrous in the realness of the event - even the great Red Spot made an appearance. Now how spectacular is that? So big deal you might say...a part of me thought the same initially...the event has no significance physically - just a meaningless superposition of two planets we see all the time. But then I thought...think of how beautiful these two planets are...the largest planet in our solar system, with colored bands and a 400 year old raging red storm - the other, a gas giant planet with almost fake looking (but real!) rings of ice and rock - both in the same field of view for human eyes to witness in a moment in time that won't come again for almost a thousand years. You're alive now in just the right time in history with technology sufficiently advanced for you to get to see it. That's something isn't it?


NGC672,IC1727 - Interacting Pair of Galaxies  by Terry Riopka

NGC672 is a spiral galaxy interacting with a dwarf galaxy called IC1727. The pair is located about 23 million light years away and is thought to be part of a cluster of dwarf galaxies formed along a filament of intergalactic gas accreted on a dark matter "backbone". Methods to detect that intergalactic gas are currently underway.

The sensitivity of the ASI2600mc camera is notable in this 5 hour exposure, revealing nice structure in the larger pair of galaxies but also bringing out multiple edge on galaxies in the field as well, in addition to several "fuzzies" around NGC672 itself. There's no way I could have gotten this much detail using my DSLR! I took this image Dec. 10, 2020 with my 12inch classic Meade SCT on an MyT Paramount. I acquired images using a cooled ASI2600mc stacking just over 100 3 min exposures. You can see I'm slowly improving my processing with Pixinsight! You can see another processing attempt here.


M33 - by Terry Riopka

Also known as NGC598, this rather large distended galaxy is about 3 million light years away. I've struggled with imaging this galaxy over the years, but all it really took was a longer exposure and here I am! Of course, to get to that longer exposure, I had to go to an MyT Paramount and a cooled camera. And, along the way, I picked up a 12 inch scope and some dedicated software for image processing (Pixinsight)...and that's all there was to it! :) But seriously, this galaxy has some beautiful color to it, and you don't need an Halpha filter to get to it. This was taken using RGB only, with some restrained color saturation to boost the "natural" colors. Here is a version with even more saturated colors - I think I like the subdued version a little better! Inevitably, you hear astroimagers combining Halpha images with RGB, but the bottom line is that *all* that information is there already - you just need a long enough exposure and a reweighting of the color to show it. You can see my full imaging details here. Two of my previous attempts are here: at 7 minutes and 53 minutes exposure time with my T3i on my 10 inch.

For those of you interested in Pixinsight workflows...screen transfer function stretch, dynamic crop, DBE with carefully selected points, histogram transformation, color calibration, deconvolution, multiscale linear transform for noise reduction, local histogram equalization (250 pixel window size), curves transformation, and finally, a masked curves transformation to eliminate vignetted corners.


NGC891 - by Terry Riopka

Well, after about a year playing around with my MyT Paramount, I finally have things humming with my 12 inch scope. You might think a year is a long time, but if you want to do high quality imaging, you really need to put the work into understanding your system, because there's a lot that can go wrong. The Paramount MyT is really a wonder of engineering, and I'm finally starting to take advantage of that. Here's a 5h exposure of NGC891 in Andromeda I took Sept. 19th, 2020, with my Canon T3i DSLR using my 12inch Meade Classic. It is well beyond my previous 52 minute exposure with my 10 inch before my MyT. Longer exposures is really where it's at. All those wonderful photos you see people taking are really a function of exposure time - it's really quite simple: the longer, the better - simple as that. Sure you need the skills to process the image as well, but the bottom line is dark skies and long exposures. Oh wait...did I mention perfect focus, excellent collimation, flawless tracking, no moon and good visibilty - oh yeah, forgot about those :)

NGC891 is a beautiful example of an edge-on galaxy, about 30 million light years away. Its many filaments and tendrils extending out of its plane are thought to be the result of the ejection of material due to supernovae and intense stellar formation activity. In the upper left part of the image, right under NGC891, you can also see a tiny image of a distant spiral galaxy in the background. For more imaging details, look here :


M106 - by Terry Riopka

This is my first serious attempt at using Pixinsight for astroimage processing. Pros will no doubt find much to criticize, but for me, it was a resounding success. I always thought processing in GIMP or some other general processing program could attain very similar results and I generally discounted what I thought were exaggerated and illegitimate embellishments. However, I am forced to take some of that back. In my limited time during Pixinsight's 45 day trial period, I found several features to be truly indispensable. First, Pixinsight does a fantastic job of removing vignetting and/or other uneven illumination using a relatively easy semi-automatic algorithm. Second, it allows you to create fuzzy masks and star masks that are very useful in enabling smooth transitions between enhanced and unenhanced regions of the image. And finally (but no where close to lastly) multi-scale (wavelet) transforms enable selective enhancement of different scales of detail in the image, allowing all sorts of precise, scale-targeted enhancements. So here it is: M106, a Seyfert galaxy in Canes Venatici...taken with my "new" 12 inch Meade scope on a Paramount MyT mount and my trusty Canon T3i. This is a four hour exposure,stacking 120 2 minute exposures at ISO1600, with dark frames. I also used dithering for the first time to minimize "walking noise". Nice, right?. I love this hobby! Compare this with my previous version of M106 an eon ago: here .


IC5217 - by Terry Riopka

This isn't my first image with my 10" inch Meade on my MyT mount, but it is the most beautiful example I have so far of the potential capabilities of this mount. Also, with the 2019 Christmas season right around the corner, the beautiful colors in this star field seemed appropriate for the occasion. This image had two other important characteristics that made me post it. First, this 11.3 magnitude planetary nebula - known as IC5217 in the constellation Lacerta - is the smallest one I have yet imaged: a mere 6" x 8" in size. Second, the tracking for the 66 one minute exposures I stacked to create this was practically perfect, as evidenced by the almost perfectly circular star images visible throughout the field, and no lost frames. The inset (below, center) shows a magnified view of the nebula but contrast stretched differently to expose its subtle elliptical/rectangular shape. Normally, I wouldn't even consider looking for detail in such a small planetary as I doubt my seeing is better than about 3", but given the beautiful circular stars of my one minute exposures, I'm pretty sure the elongated shape in the north/south direction is real and not an artefact of any tracking, collimation or processing issues. Its shape is also consistent with other observers with much larger telescopes. The inset below left, shows OIII, NII and Halpha images of the nebula using a 1.5m scope, while the inset below right shows a visible light image using an 80cm scope, both clearly showing the elongated shape of the planetary. There's a slight hint of blue and red on east and west sides (respectively) of the nebula in my image, which may also be real, based on observations I have read. More detailed imaging information is given here .

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