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.

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.

Northern lights

The Aurora Borealis is a pretty rare sight from England. The last time I saw one was back in January 2005! Last night however, everything came together and the illusive northern lights showed up once more.

I know from experience that it pays to check if any auroras are forecast (99 times out of 100 they aren’t!). Websites like spaceweather.com or noaa.gov provide this info, and even offer services to alert you by phone. Checking last night showed an aurora in progress, so I dropped everything and shot out the door. The animation below shows the scene around 5 minutes before the most active part of the display.

Aurora Borealis over york uk

I was able to get out to a pretty good location with an attractive little church and less light pollution just prior to a 15 minute burst of stronger activity, when the skies lit up with fast moving curtains of red and green.

Aurora Borealis from york england 2014

The display died down after this, but continued for at least a few hours more, visible as a shimmering curtain of light hanging above the light pollution of York.

aurora york uk 2014

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

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.

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