A colourful conjunction

Comet lovejoy and the pleiadesComet Lovejoy continues to impress as it swiftly passes through the winter sky. A conjunction with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus set up a beautiful wide-angle photo opportunity last night for which I was lucky enough to have clear skies. The intensely green comet, the electric blue Pleiades and the vibrant orange of Aldebaran formed a colourful celestial triangle.

This is the first image I’ve taken using the excellent new softon filter which really makes the brighter stars in the constellations pop out, as well as emphasising their true colours. It should be especially good for wide-angle shots as a way of making the constellations more recognisable. As with all the filters I use, I bought the largest size possible, then simply use step-up rings to fit them to any of the lenses.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 50mm f1.8 at f4. 8 minutes (8 x 60 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter and softon filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Lovejoy imaged with Nikon D7000 at 180mm f2.8Despite painfully cold fingers, I persevered with the hand-driven barn door tracker to capture a few closer shots with the 180mm lens. The comet has certainly evolved over the few days since the last shoot.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 5 minutes (5 x 60 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Lovejoy stacked in DSS Using Deep Sky Stacker’s comet mode lets you fix the comet’s motion, revealing more detail in the structure of the tail.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 10 minutes (10 x 60 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Lovejoy – C/2014 Q2

180mm f2.8 Nikon D7000 barn door tracker
Ever since hearing about newly discovered comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 in the Autumn of last year, I’ve been eagerly anticipating its arrival. Even splashing out on a new lens for the occasion. Unfortunately the weather has scuppered any plans I had to capture the comet in early January, with endless amounts of cloud, usually rolling up just as it gets dark!..

Last night, however, a fleeting break in the clouds allowed me to grab a handful of shots as the comet makes its way past Earth and on towards a close encounter with the Sun on the 30th of January.

I didn’t anticipate much detail with just 8 images to go on (4 minutes total exposure time), but at least the the stacking process was a quick one. The final image above reveals a surprising amount of structural detail in the tail, along with its stunning blue colour. The comet appears much larger than I expected too, the tail now stretches over 10 degrees (20 times the size of the full moon), with much of this huge tail cropped off the bottom of the frame.

With comet Lovejoy quickly moving higher into the northern hemisphere sky, and with the tail changing structure on a daily basis, it should still be a great target for the next couple of months – weather permitting!

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 4 minutes (8 x 30 seconds) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

The Pleiades

The Pleiades star tracker

The open cluster of the Pleiades is a captivating sight in the winter sky, with nebulosity visible even to the the naked eye. Longer exposures reveal the electric colour of the blue hot stars at the cluster’s heart. These bright stars make it tricky to capture the fainter wisps of nebulosity without causing excessive coma. Stopping the lens down to f4 (instead of the usual f2.8) helped a lot with this, but resulted in some diffraction spikes, which I actually think work nicely.

Image details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f4. 36 minutes (27 x 80 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Pleiades-UGC2838 Just beside the Pleiades, next to the perfectly named Electra, lies one of the most distant galaxies I’ve yet managed to capture. Looking like a mere smudge in the image, edge-on galaxy UGC 2838, at 300 million light years distance, is an incredible 676 thousand times further away than the Pleiades themselves. At magnitude 17.88, it is also by far the faintest object I’ve knowingly photographed.

Omega nebula & Eagle nebula

Eagle nebula and Omega nebula wide angle

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.

M17 omega nebula wide

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..

eagle nebula wide shot with nikon d7000

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.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 36 minutes (144 x 15 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Jacques – C/2014 E2

comet Jacques 2014 passing the heart and soul nebula
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.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 50mm f1.8 at f1.8. 18 minutes (6 x 3 minutes) at iso 800. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

Comet Jacques update: August 21st

Comet Jacques 2014 taken at 180mm with barn door trackerComet Jacques 2014 stacked to cometAnother clear night allowed me to shoot the comet Jacques for a second night in succession. But this time with the 180mm lens.

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.

Details: Nikon D7000Nikkor 180mm f2.8 at f2.8. 18 minutes (36 x 30 seconds) at iso 1600. Using didymium filter. Stacked with Deep Sky Stacker and tracked with barn door tracker.

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.