The Summer Triangle rises above Twistleton Scars in the Yorkshire Dales. The Milky Way bisects the scene with the great Andromeda galaxy visible in the top left of shot.
The Omega nebula, also known as the Swan nebula (although it looks more like a snail to me) in Sagittarius is a tricky one from this latitude (54° north) as once the summer twilight passes and it’s dark enough to take photos again, it barely gets above the horizon. I had a good go at capturing it though, despite massive light pollution which kept the exposures down to just 15 seconds.
Just above the Omega nebula lies the Eagle nebula (I was able to fit them both in the same shot). A 36 minute stack of 144 shots was enough to bring out some detail, including my favourite, the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the centre of the nebula.. You’ll need to look closely..
I think revealing these features is really pushing the limits of what can be achieved with the 180mm lens and barn door tracker. The tracker is more than capable of handling higher magnifications though, so to get better shots with finer detail, I would need to invest in a bigger lens.
Comet Jacques is now perfectly placed for Northern hemisphere observers. Visible all night for the next month or so, it’s path takes it directly along the spine of the Milky Way. This should make for some interesting conjunctions, and some good photo ops in the coming weeks, as it slowly fades away.
Although Jacques has turned out to be a lot dimmer than predicted (with an especially faint tail), I still wanted to capture the comet’s flyby of the famous double cluster in Perseus.
I’ve had mixed results with comets in the past, so this time I decided on a tactic of maximum light gathering. This involved stepping down from the usual 180mm f2.8 lens and instead using the 50mm f1.8 lens for maximum aperture. The lens produces a lot of coma around the stars when shot wide open, but as the comet is so faint and diffuse, it isn’t actually affected by it. The 50mm focal length also allows for longer exposures than the regular 180mm lens due to the larger margin for error. The comet’s movement through the sky also becomes much less of an issue.
Taking a series of 3 minute exposures, I was pretty happy with the composition. What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I’d captured something else in the frame. It wasn’t until I began to process the images that the nebulae appeared. Amazingly, the comet sits right between the Heart and Soul nebulae, which I had no idea existed beforehand. These two very faint nebulae should make a great target with the 180mm lens later in the year when they move overhead.
Comet Jacques update: August 21st
The comet had moved further than I thought in just 24 hours, now sitting right beside the brightest part of the Heart nebula. It’s exactly this speed of movement which makes shooting comets so tricky. The 18 minute image above (stacked on the stars) captures the nebula well. But the comet, and especially the tail, is blurred by the movement.
The second image (stacked on the comet) freezes the motion to finally reveal the thin, wispy tail in a bit of detail.
Spring is a great time to for viewing galaxies in the northern hemisphere. The Virgo supercluster arches overhead in a vast swathe through the constellations of Virgo, Leo, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici. Many famous and recognisable galaxies occupy this region, but none may be as beautiful as the Whirlpool galaxy.
At 37 million light years distance, M51 is comfortably the most distant object I’ve tried to photograph. Despite the huge distance, the galaxy is bright and stands out vividly, even in the individual 30 second sub-photos.
The Whirlpool galaxy appears small in the frame, yet the stacked image above (cropped down from the original) shows a surprising amount of detail. Even some of the nebulous structure surrounding the galaxy is visible, formed by the interaction with its neighbouring galaxy, NGC 5195.
Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 45 minutes (90 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker. Big thanks to Eric for the extra image processing which helped tease out the finer details.
Whirlpool galaxy & comet PANSTARRS (C2012/K1)
A few nights after taking the original image, I trained the camera on the Whirpool Galaxy once more to capture new comet PANSTARRS C2012/K1 as it made a close pass of the galaxy.
Although quite faint (around magnitude 9 at time of capture), the comet shows a good tail. In fact it has two tails, the second of which I tried to capture in the 15 minute image stack. Although it’s barely visible, if you squint, you can just about make out the much longer and fainter gas/ion tail emanating from the comet at about 5 o’clock in the image.
The comet should be visible for most of 2014, as it continues to brighten to a predicted magnitude 6 later in the autumn.
Details: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 7 minutes (14 x 30 seconds) and 15 minutes (30 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.
I was a bit hesitant to image the Rosette nebula as it sits quite low in the sky, and is even fainter than the tricky Horsehead nebula which I had difficulty capturing a few months ago. So I didn’t expect much of a result when capturing the images with my DSLR/barn door tracker setup… And definitely not a stunning result like this!
The image is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve managed so far. When you factor in that it was taken with just a 180mm lens, the detail is pretty amazing. The gas filaments visible in the centre-right bare a definite resemblance to the famous ‘Pillars of Creation‘.
(Did I really just compare my photo to one taken by the Hubble Space Telescope!?)
Eleven and a half million years ago, a massive explosion lit up the Cigar galaxy (M82), and just last week, the light from this dying star finally arrived on Earth.
This is a rare supernova event (and the closest to Earth in 20 years) so I thought I’d have a go at capturing it as best I could with the 180mm lens.
Although not very impressive (yet), it can clearly be seen in this stacked image of 66 30 second exposures. Unusually, the supernova stands out a lot more in the single 30 second exposures, as the stacking process increases the brightness of the galaxy.
Many more galaxies also show up in the stacked image (see labelled version below). Alongside M82 (the Cigar galaxy) and M81 (Bode’s galaxy) is NGC 301 (bottom of image) and NGC 2976 (right of image), with at least half a dozen more distant galaxies (up to magnitude 14.9) visible as faint blobs. Click here for a larger view.
The supernova in M82 is an ongoing event and should continue to brighten for a couple of weeks. I hope to get out (weather permitting!) and improve on this shot in the coming nights.
The Sun sets by mid afternoon this time of the year in the north of the UK. This is not good news for SAD sufferers, but it’s great for astrophotography!
Because of the long nights, the summer constellations sit high in the late afternoon/early evening sky well into January. This gave me chance to revisit Cygnus a few nights ago to see if I could improve on previous efforts.
The image above is a stack of 120 x 30 second images taken over two nights. I’m amazed by the detail (once again) when compared to earlier attempts. This extra detail is mostly down to the longer total exposure time of 1 hour. Along with the 180mm f2.8 ED lens which is much more suited to the job than the kit lens I used before.
It also goes to show that you don’t need an expensive telescope to see the best of the night sky. You’re often better off with just a regular camera and lens as many objects such as the North America Nebula are much bigger than you might think.