Noctilucent Clouds

noctilucent clouds

Living in northern Europe has a few drawbacks when it comes to astrophotography. The high latitude means we struggle to see many of the best constellations. And for a couple of months a year, the summer sky stays blue throughout the night, making astrophotography impossible. But with the drawbacks come one or two beautiful phenomenon as compensation. Along with auroras, midsummer displays of noctilucent clouds are only seen at higher latitudes.

noctilucent clouds panoramic

On the long summer evenings of June and July, a river of electric blue clouds will sometimes appear around local midnight. These ‘night shining’ clouds, believed to be seeded by meteor dust on the edge of space, are illuminated by sunlight travelling clear over the Arctic.

With midnight approaching on the July 7th, the unmistakable sight began to appear through the twilight. I wanted to capture the movement of the clouds by taking a series of images to create a time-lapse video. The time-lapse itself, taken between 12:30 and 1:30am local time, is made up of around 300 individual photos taken 10-15 seconds apart. These were then stitched together using PhotoLapse making the sequences into short video. It’s only brief, but it shows how the clouds flow in a river-like motion from the north. (The red lights seen at the bottom of the frame are those of Bilsdale transmitter, around 50 miles/80km away).

Click here to download HD version of the video.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 1.2 seconds at iso 200.

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Whirlpool galaxy & comet PANSTARRS

whirlpool galaxy taken with nikon D7000 and a barn door tracker

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 D7000Nikkor 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.

Comet PANSTARRS and the Whirlpool Galaxy

Comet PANSTARRS C/2012 K1

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 D7000Nikkor 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.

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Rosette nebula

rosette nebula 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!?)

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 1 hour (120 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Supernova!

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.

cigar galaxy supernova barn door trackerThis 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.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 33 minutes (66 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

M81 M82 galaxy cluster

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North America nebula

north america nebula barn door tracker

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.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 1 hour (120 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Andromeda Galaxy II

Andromeda galaxy with barn door tracker

After being blown away by my first attempt at the Andromeda Galaxy, I couldn’t help having another go with the improved barn door tracker, this time using longer exposures of 80 seconds, and a lower iso of 800. The resulting image has a lot more detail and much less noise than the original, despite being taken from the back garden with plenty of light pollution and a rising moon. Click here to view the image at 100% scale.

Having experimented with different ISO speeds on the Nikon D7000, I’d say that iso 800-1000 offers the best balance between noise and sensitivity for astrophotography.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 64 minutes (48 x 80 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Below is a side-by-side comparison between the original image (5 x 30 seconds at iso 1600) and a recent image (18 x 80 seconds at iso 800).

andromeda galaxy exposure length

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Comet Lovejoy – C/2013 R1

comet lovejoy C/2013 R1 and M44 beehive cluster

I managed to grab a few shots of comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as it flew past the Beehive cluster (M44) in the constellation of Cancer. Lovejoy is one of four bright comets currently visible in the early morning sky, including the much anticipated ISON. Unfortunately I don’t have the will power to get up at 5am to enjoy the show, but Lovejoy hangs much higher in the sky at this point, so appears much earlier. (These images were taken between 1 and 1.30am local time).

The comet is still pretty dim at the moment at magnitude 6.2, and invisible to the naked eye. But it should continue to brighten for the next month or so, hopefully developing a more pronounced tail as it dives toward the Sun.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 3 minutes (6 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

comet lovejoy C/2013 R1 barn door trackerA single 30 second exposure was enough to bring out the comet’s intense green colour caused by poisons gasses spewing from the core. I captured a total of 40 exposures at 30 second each stacking them in Deep Sky Stacker to create the 20 minutes image shown here.

Stacking the images centred on the comet results in the streaking of the background stars due to the huge speed of the comet (roughly 100,000 mph). DSS does give the option to stack the comet and the stars separately (so both are sharp). This sounds great, but in practice didn’t work too well and I actually prefer the original 3 minute exposure stacked on the stars.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 20 minutes (40 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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Comet Lovejoy Update 30th November..

Comet Lovejoy is best seen in the hours before dawn, where it sits nice and high in the sky. But thankfully for people like me who enjoy their sleep, it’s also now visible in the evening sky as well. It appears lower down at this time, so the conditions aren’t as good, but it has allowed me to revisit the comet to see how it’s doing as it nears the Sun…

Comet lovejoy galaxy barn door tracker

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 5 minutes (10 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked (to stars) with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

The comet, seen here gliding past the Sunflower galaxy (M63), has grown a pretty huge tail in the last month! Although I’ve found long exposures of the comet difficult to take due to its massive speed, the image below with the levels pushed to the maximum shows some nice detail in the tail.

comet lovejoy tail barn door tracker

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 9 minutes (18 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked (to comet) with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.
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