I finally had a chance to photograph Comet Catalina after what seems like a solid month of cloud. By chance this happened to be a night when the comet passed close to the Pinwheel galaxy (M101) forming a brief but beautiful conjunction. Catalina is already an attractive comet, with the delicate ion tail clearly separate from the wide dust tail, with the coma a familiar green colour.
The comet is currently drifting through Ursa Major, making it a perfect target for viewers in the northern hemisphere throughout the night. The live sky map below shows the current position of the comet as it begins journey out of the solar system, never to return!
The Pacman nebula is named after the classic 80’s arcade game character, but to me it looks much more like an angler fish! The little nebula (officially named NGC 281) sits alongside the bright yellow star Scheder, inside the familiar W constellation of Cassiopeia.
A surprising amount of detail is captured in the 66 minute exposure taken at 180mm. Using the softon filter to enhance the string of bright nearby stars forms an attractive triangle with the nebula…
For reasons not fully understood, you’re around twice as likely to see an aurora in spring or autumn then in summer or winter. Even a mild solar flare or gust of solar wind from a coronal hole can spark off a display. This was a great example as it took me completely by surprise a couple of nights before taking the pacman nebula shots. I did managed to get a tantalising glimpse of the display through the clouds thanks to some timely twitter notifications..
The ragged remains of a 7000 year old supernova explosion make up the Veil nebula in the constellation of Cygnus. A 72 minute exposure (144 x 30 seconds) over two nights was enough to pick up some of the intricate details of this huge and complex structure. The Western Veil or Witch’s Broom nebula sits to the right of the shot, with the Eastern Veil to the left. The faint triangular patch just visible in the middle is known as Pickering’s Triangle.
A close up of the brightest parts of the structure, the Eastern Veil and Western Veil, show the folds of pink and blue – almost like it should be viewed wearing 3D galsses!
Cutting through the Milky Way, the constellation of Cygnus is home to some of the best sights in the night sky; the North America Nebula, the Dumbell nebula and another one I plan on tackling soon, the Vail nebula.
At the heart of the constellation, bright star Gamma Cygni (Sadr) is surrounded by nebulosity. I first captured this a couple of years ago – a shot which made me realise the potential of a simple DSLR and barn door tracker. I felt it was high time I revisited this old favourite with the 180mm lens.
The butterfly nebula sits to the left of Sadr, with some good structure visible. The intricate bubble-like structure of the crescent nebula can be seen (lower right) amid the vast sea of stars which make up the Milky Way.
The short nights of spring reveal a view unobstructed by the Milky Way, with slim pickings for wide-angle astrophotography. But there are some distant giants to be seen. The Pinwheel galaxy is one of them.
The massive galaxy stretches 180,000 light-years edge to edge. Despite this vast size, the face-on nature of the galaxy, and the huge distance, make it a appear quite dim. The combined light of a trillion suns barely registering on the 30 second exposures. The combined time of 30 minutes in the stacked image above reveals more…
The spiral structure of the galaxy, and the many bright nebulous regions within can be seen. Also revealed are dozens of the smaller galaxies residing in the area. Alhough these can be tricky to distinguish from the bloated stars, a problem made worse by the stacking process.
The full image below shows how tiny the Pinwheel galaxy appears in the frame of the 180mm lens. Not quite up to Hubble deep field standards, but not bad for a regular camera and home-made tracker!
Comet Lovejoy continues to shine as it journeys through the Solar System. Early last week the comet passed the Owl Cluster in Cassiopeia, making for another great photo opportunity.
With one of Cassiopeia’s brightest stars ‘Ruchbah‘ (right of shot) guiding the way, comet Lovejoy is an easy target to find at the moment. It’s surprising to see how bright the tail still is, with plenty of structure still visible. (Click the image for a larger version).
Just below Lovejoy sits the brilliantly named Owl Cluster, with the two brightest stars forming the eyes. The small nebula just above the comet is the little known Dolphin nebula, a small planetary nebula around 850 light years distance. The cluster of stars at the top right of the image is Messier 103.
After giving up on it a couple of weeks ago, I decided to have another try at the Flaming Star nebula, this time under better conditions…
Heading a few miles out of town to darker skies makes a huge difference for such a faint subject. The darker background not only make the nebula more visible, but also allows for longer exposure times before light pollution levels get too high. Because of this I was able to double the normal length of sub exposure to 1 minute, taking fifty in total.
To highlight the stars, a couple of extra minutes exposure using the was enough to bring out the colours in the line of stars beside the nebula.
Even with the extra light gathered, the final image stacked with Deep Sky Stacker took plenty of work in Photoshop to reveal the reds in the Flaming Star nebula and glowing cluster NGC 893 sitting opposite. Also revealed in the middle of the shot is the jewel-like Spider Nebula (IC 417) along with its prey, the tiny Fly Nebula (NGC 1931) seen just to the left. The two open clusters in the shot are M38 (top left) and M36 below.
Doubling or tripling the 50 minute exposure time would be necessary to improve the quality of the image. It looks a little grainy due to all the post-processing. But with the time I spent on processing, I think I’ll leave it at that!