Remember my last article? You know the one about my experience at the Fan Mountain Observatory in April 2019. The outcome was to target Messier 51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy with the RRRT (Rapid Response Robotic Telescope). Well the results are in and before I get there I’m going to tell you a little about the process.
Dr. Edward Murphy suggested capturing Messier 51, so I didn’t change that part of the plan. It was everything else that needed to be thought out. With the limited time available, I could choose to do a long session in visible light or break up into 3 sessions in RGB (Red/Green/Blue). And after careful consideration, I decided to challenge myself and go RGB.
Next the telescope is capable of 6 minute exposures and the most I’ve done is 30 seconds. So I baby stepped it at 2 minutes per exposure. That’s pretty much it although I had to learn new post processing tricks to put it all together.
About Messier 51
Discovered and catalogued by Charles Messier in 1773. To him it was a fuzzy nebula. Later it became the first galaxy to be classified as a spiral galaxy thanks to Edwin Hubble. Looking at the photo, you see a companion galaxy. In addition, it is a dwarf galaxy named NGC 5195. It looks to be a meal for Messier 51. Light from this group takes approximately 23 million light years to get to us. Unless you can bend space and time, visiting during your lifetime is well…impossible.
I liked most was the post processing workflow I developed. After stacking, I had to learn how to combine each color into one picture using Gimp. Check out the workflow below to see how much fun this was for me. I look forward to my next challenge as always and for you…clear skies!
I live in Hampton Roads so I know of the local HBCUs (Hampton University & Norfolk State University). I’m also a graduate of the University of Virginia (Go Hoos!). So when Tom invited me to visit the Fan Mountain Observatory, just oustide the grounds of UVA, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s only open to the publice twice a year. With the door open, I walked in. And yes, Norfolk State owns one of the telescopes.
The Trip to UVA
Fresh off seeing my UVA Cavaliers win the NCAA Mens Basketball Championship, I couldn’t wait to visit grounds. In fact I packed all my UVA gear and prepared to buy more. Ok so I was wearing most of it, but who cares, I am going back to Charlottesville, VA. I picked up Tom just as the rain hit and loaded the car with his telescope and imaging gear. It was an easy drive to UVA. I told Tom we’re going to have to stop at the Corner and go to Mincers because I’ve got to shop. Of course we were not alone. Mincers was packed and it was loaded with all the Championship stuff an Alumn and Fan could ever want. With purchases complete, we checked into the hotel and planned the next steps to the Fan Mountain Observatory opening.
The Observatory at Fan Mountain
The road to the top is narrow. Traffic was only allowed up between 7 pm and 9 pm. After that it’s one way down the mountain. Driving, my 4 wheel drive SUV, made the ascent easy. Fifteen minutes later we arrived and began immediately taking pictures. The UVA team set up specific times to tour the 30 inch and 40 inch telescopes. They explained the benefits of using the infra-red light spectrum to view night sky objects. They also detailed how each telescope works and their history at UVA.
It was interesting to note that the students are focused on the non visible light wavelengths. So for me as a backyard astrophotographer, it sparked a lot of questions that the students enjoyed answering. The 31 inch scope does not have motors on the ascension and declination axes. Because it’s manual, it is not used often. The 40 inch (1 meter) is a massive telescope. It sits on an isolated 2 story concrete pier and barely fits under the dome. If the weather cooperated, I’m sure that would have given us a great view.
The RRRT from Norfolk State
The RRRT or Rabit Response Robotic Telescope is fully automated. The scope is owned by Norfolk State University and maintained by the UVA team. It is one sweet telescope. Tom and I were given a private tour of the facility by Dr. Edward M. Murphy, Professor of Astronomy. It is connected to Skynet. Yes Terminator fans, Skynet does exist! Skynet is a product of the University of North Carolina (UNC). To begin with, this particular Skynet makes sense. It’s a network of telescopes that look at the sky. With Skynet, a automated telescope like the RRRT can be remotely given a specific target to photograph. Subsequently, 13 telescopes are connected to Skynet and the system knows which telescope is available based on weather stations at each location. Dr. Murphy offered me an account to use the RRRT and of course I accepted. When I get the photo I’ll show you.
The RRRT is a Ritchey-Chretien telescope. Separating itself from other types of telescopes, this type contains two mirrors. The primary is concave and the secondary convex. The primary mirror is 24 inches in diameter. Therefore it can gather significant amounts of light. It has a large CCD camera. The camera is an SBIG STX-16803 with a 4096×4096 pixel sensor. Also, it sports a set of Johnson/Cousins UBVRI filters. I’ve requested the RRRT to photograph Messier 51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy. My patience will be tested since Virginia weather has been on the cloudy and rainy side for months.
Fun Trip For All
Incidentally, using this telescope does not mean I’m done with my scopes. However, it simply means I’ve got a professional scope on the team. I am grateful to both Tom (for the invite) and Dr. Murphy (for the invite to SkyNet). Thank you for being you. Clear skies!
I moved prime focus without cutting the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly) on my Orion Astroview 6 telescope. Huh? How? No way? The first thing I did when the Canon EOS XTi DSLR camera arrived…put it on my 6 inch reflector telescope. I quickly discovered that focusing on stars, and DSO (Deep Sky Objects) was impossible.
Orion Astroview 6 – About The Scope
This telescope has a 150 mm aperture and a 750 mm focal length. This gives it a fast f/5 focal ratio. It’s great for viewing planetary and bright DSO. You can image with a smartphone most of the objects in the night sky using eyepiece projection, and with a webcam or DSLR camera, planetary objects. It comes with two counter weights (7.5 lbs and 4 lbs). All together it weighs 37 lbs. The OTA is 27 inches long. I’ve added a motor to the mount in order to track the objects I’m viewing. In addition, the Orion website clearly omits DSO in the “Best For Imaging” category. You know me, I love a challenge.
Orion Astroview 6 – Prime Focus & Moving It
The Orion Astroview 6 is a Newtonian or Reflector telescope. In a telescope like this, prime focus is the point where the light converges in the viewer. The image here shows where prime focus rests depending on the location of the primary mirror. If you follow the arrows which represent light, you see the light reflects off the primary mirror on the right. It is then reflected off the secondary mirror into the viewing tube. Viewing with your eye through an eyepiece works great on my telescope. That’s what it is designed to do. The focuser is simply moving prime focus up and down so your eye can focus on the object.
With a DSLR camera, it is more difficult because prime focus is too low in the view tube. The focuser cannot bring prime focus close enough to the camera. In the image above, it shows two locations for prime focus. These lower one is the designed location for observation. The upper is the modified location that is good for DSLR astrophotography. There are several ways to get a DSLR camera to work with the Orion Astroview 6 telescope. Everything you read on the internet or see on YouTube state that the modification is permanent. Meaning you have to drill holes in the OTA or cut off the back end of the OTA. These are good options for those with money to throw away. Here’s how I moved prime focus.
Orion Astroview 6 – The Primary Mirror
As we say in engineering, you can’t fix what you cant see. So I took the telescope apart. Shown here is the mirror assembly in its compnent parts. Shown next to the mirror are 3 rubber clamps which hold the mirror onto the frame on the right. I focused on these three for my modification. You know I like to 3D print parts for this hobby. My measurements, and some trial and error, revealed the prime focus needed to move about 20 mm. My design moves it about 30 mm, to give the focuser room to adjust for temperature changes.
Orion Astroview 6 – Mirror Extension
Let me introduce the Orion Astroview Mirror Extension. If you have access to a 3D printer, you can click the link and print 3 for yourself. What I like about this is that I reused the screws already in the telescope. It holds the mirror far enough in the OTA to achieve prive focus with my DSLR camera. I can also return the telescope to original condition for resale or a night of viewing. The base of it matches the original rubber clamps and the screws hold them tight to the mirror frame. The best part is that this is non-destructive to your telescope!
Orion Astroview 6 – DSLR Photo Results
With the Meade ETX-125, the field of view is small and only the Orion Nebula fits in the picture and barely. The increased field of view with the Orion Astroview 6 allows me to include the Running Man Nebula. the Mead is has a focal ratio of f/12 vs the Orion Astroview 6 focal ration of f/5. This means faster light gathering capability and more vibrant colors in the resulting photo. I’ve not seen an extension like this anywhere, so I hope you like and use on your own telescope.
Owning the Orion Astroview 6 telescope does not mean only viewing anymore. You can take great pictures of deep sky objects and view the Moon and planets when ever you like. You will get good at collimating your telescope and I recommend cloth mirror protection whenever you change back and forth. Enjoy this and clear skies.
There are numerous objects in the night sky. Using a telescope brings them into view but how do you bring them into focus. The simple answer is turn the knob on the focuser until it looks clear to you. I thought this to be effective with astrophotography, until I learned that focused for my eye was not the same as focused for my Google Pixel. That’s when I turned to the Bahtinov Mask.
Bahtinov Mask: What is it?
As you have already gathered a Bahtinov Mask is used to focus a telescope. Invented in 2005, by Russian astrophotographer Pavel Bahtinov, it consists of 3 patterned sections. The pattern is designed to create a diffraction spike to the viewer. Although the pattern makes the spikes, the mask takes advantage of the aperture stop in the optical system to create the view. The two shown here are 3D printed from two different materials. One is softer than the other, but these can be found on many 3D printer sites. However it is your choice to have online companies print for you or print yourself at home. Your local library may also have a printer you can use for a small fee.
Bahtinov Mask: How to Use
My telescope and camera are set up, and now it is time to focus. It is important to focus my scope before doing a drift polar alignment. I will explain polar alignment is a future post. I place the Bahtinov Mask on the front of the telescope. Next I point the telescope at a bright star. Actually, any relatively bright star will do. Once complete I proceed to the step of adjusting. I can then do this next step with the eyepiece, but once the camera is installed, the focus is different. So I begin by opening APT (Astrophotography Tool) on my laptop or Camera FV-5 on my Google Pixel. Using this app I begin taking pictures of the star with the camera. What I see on the screen, I use to adjust the telescope focuser. Now complete, I remove the mask and begin to polar align the telescope.
Bahtinov Mask: Photo Results Explained
Shown above are pictures taken with the Bahtinov Mask installed. It is the same star with different focus. Out of focus are the left and right. Conversely, the center is focused. The pattern on the Bahtinov Mask create the 3 lines or spikes crossing the star. My goal is to adjust the focuser knob to move the center spike equal distant between the other two. This is the achieved focus. Simple enough. Try it and let me know your results.
Bahtinov Mask: Conclusion
The Bahtinov Mask is a great tool to achieve optimum or perfect focus. APT and other software can assist in achieving perfect focus for your photos. Although they are inexpensive, 3D printing them can save more. They expertly help focus on planets, Nebula and start clusters. Unfortunately there is no benefit to use with the Moon and Sun. In fact, using on the Sun is dangerous. So however you acquire one, take your next great photo using the Bahtinov Mask. Enjoy and clear skies.
The Canon EOs XTi joins my astrophotography family. I started using my Google Pixel Really Blue to photograph night sky objects. I’ve captured the Orion Nebula, Sun, stars, planets, star clusters and the Andromeda Galaxy with my smartphone. The smartphone can capture, with the same quality, most night sky objects. Deep Sky Objects present a challenge for the smartphone. I acquired a used Canon EOS XTi DSLR Camera. It was donated by Chuck Marshall of Chuck’s Camera Plus in Hampton, VA. It is gently used and has a damaged card reader.
Canon EOS XTi Specs
Crop Sensor vs Full Frame
I don’t yet know enough about this comparison to speak to it. At minimum I know the crop sensor removes the edges from your field of view increasing focal length. Full Frame gives you everything which has its place in your astrophotography tool bag. More on this in future posts.
The details of this camera can be found on the Canon website. So let’s discuss the inportant ones related to astrophotography. Light sensitivity allows you to adjust for the brightness of the planned target. Having this flexability is needed with the different objects night sky. The Horsehead Nebula for example is very dim in comparison to the Orion Nebula which you can see with the naked eye. The Canon EOS XTi has an ISO range of 100-1600. Bright objects like the Moon or Sun need low ISO to capture clearly. This model requires a filter to reduce the light intensity and/or very fast shutter speed to compensate. The Google Pixel is capable of ISO less than 50 with a max of 10000. Certainly the Canon EOS XTi, released in 2006, will be used for specific photos since it can’t compete with the smartphone.
Shutter speed with the Canon EOS XTi is maxed at 1/4000 sec. Compared to my Google Pixel at 1/8000 sec, the smartphone wins. On the opposite end where DSO objects live, the camera slows shutter speed to a minimum of 30 sec. The Google Pixel, 0.6 sec. And the winner goes to the Canon.
Canon EOS XTi Capability
Yes there are many differences to point out between pictures. You can see the difference between the crop sensor (Canon) vs full frame (Google Pixel). The difference between a 30 sec shutter time and a 0.6 sec shutter time. The Google Pixel has elongated stars because polar alighment is difficult in my yard. I have to drift align for polar alignment and that works best with a long shutter opening time. Of course the pictures show how much post processing improvement I’ve gained since 2017.
Canon EOS XTi Conclusion
The Canon EOS XTi currently works with my Meade ETX-125 Telescope. The scope has a smaller field of view so getting all of an object in the frame is a challenge. I’ll explain why it cannot work with the Orion Astroview 6 telescope in another post. The Canon camera will perform great with DSO and I’ll keep the Google Pixel dedicated to solar system objects. I’ve learned enough in the short period to help my neighbor sucesssfully capture photos of the Super Blood Wolf Moon. He too uses a Canon product and the results match the picture here. My own experience aside, I’ve not seen anyone else sucessfully capture a detailed DSO photo with a smartphone that rivals a DSLR camera. Get one and clear skies!
The total lunar eclipse was beautiful! I took more than 500 pictures of this event to create this photo. The 2019 total lunar eclipse wowed and amazed. My social media feeds were inundated with photos from the amateur photographer to professional photographer. I’m somewhere in between, although I did have an opportunity to help my neighbor acquire several photos with his camera.
Total Lunar Eclipse Photo Explained
The total lunar eclipse starts with the full moon (bottom left) and is called the Wolf Moon. Wolf because all full moons in January are wolf moons. The full moon is called super when closest to Earth. The next pictures are showing the shadow of the Earth as it crosses the surface of the Moon. The final two pictures show the distinctive red color that comes from bent light passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. The red color also gives this event the final word to it’s title of Super Wolf Blood Moon.
The time from start to totality (point where eclipse is total), was about 1 hour 45 minutes. This photo contains single unedited shots combined in a mosaic. It was a long night and I assisted my neighbor with is photo taking experience. So expect to see more post processed photos in the coming days.
Total Lunar Eclipse How To
I posted a few of my unedited photos and the question “What did you use?” came up several times. I used my Orion Astroview 6 inch reflector telescope and my Google Pixel smartphone. With this setup, polar alignment doesn’t have to be perfect. The short shutter time of 0.6 seconds means I have to take a lot of pictures to get a longer exposure. Since my target was the moon, longer exposure photos were not needed.
For my neighbor he used a Canon camera on a tripod with at 500 mm lense. He and I both set our cameras to ISO 800. He bumped up his shutter open time to 1 sec and achieved great photos at totality.
Hopefully you enjoyed this post. Let me know in the comments.
I’ve been “Missing In Action” with my smartphone astrophgraphy for many months now. Let me tell you why. First was the Android P or Android Pie update to my Google Pixel. Then the almost constant rainy or cloudy weather. And finally my love of basketball season. If you’re a purist, you’ve most likely clicked away, and that’s ok. Smartphone Astrophotography is not for the serious astrophotographer with expensive telescopes and mounts.
Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 1
The first item to discuss is the software update. With all phones, there are monthly security updates and yearly major updates for your phone. The yearly ones bring new features to your phone and also make your phone eat through it’s battery life. This is what happend when Android Pie was installed on my Google Pixel. Immediately, the phone heated up to unbearable levels, and my battery life dropped from 18 hours to 4 hours.
Apple, Samsung, LG, etc are not immune to this. They happen in varying degrees. Anyone who uses one for smartphone astrophotography are at risk to experiencing the battery life of their phone decrease. Also the heat can damage other functions on the phone as well.
In my case I decided to call Google to help rectify the situation. The first attempt was met with Google putting me on hold, then hanging up after 20 minutes of waiting. I made the second attempt while on a 3 hour long drive home. Google had me wait 1.5 hours then transferred me for another 30 minute wait. Once in conversation with tech support, they requested to call me the next day at 2 pm because of the background noise in my car. I never received the call.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not going for a third attempt. Clearly the only language Google responds to is money. The support for the new Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 and high. Since I have the new phones, I purchased a small battery pack which I will use this to keep the Google Pixel alive while capturing video or other photos.
Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 2
Oh one word wasn’t enough. Well a little bit more about my area of the world. It likes to rain often. I can be weeks before a clear day hits the forecast.
I recommend cleaning lenses, learning astrophotography through YouTube, improving your post processing skill in Gimp or Photoshop, collimating your reflector telescope or 3D printing accessories for your hobby. I’ve done all of this to include rediting old photos with new techniques I’ve learned.
The other option is to take a trip to an area with clear skies to enjoy the view. Great options are star parties. AmSky.com maintains a calendar of events the world over. These are mostly large events, so keep a look out for any local events in your area.
Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 3
Life is what we’re living and nothing is given. Enjoy family and friends just as much as you do your smartphone astrophotography hobby. I enjoy my job being on the leading edge of technology. I also enjoy coaching my girls and their middle school/high school basketball team.
These are perfect options for when the sky and/or equipment isn’t cooperating. Some of these are first priorities and may not be considered an obstacle. Unless there is something off. In any case finding a balance between life and your hobby can be challenging.
Ok the third obstacle is a stretch. I needed a little bit of filler here. The focus for all the smartphone astrophotography obstacles is creatively using it as an opportunity. I acquired a Canon XTi camera for instance and spent they gloomy days learning how to use it with my telescopes. I learned a lot about why it doesn’t work with one of my scopes and works well with the other. There are many opportunities to keep your hobby going, enjoy them.
August is a busy month for my family, and we took a weekend to visit the Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Wow what a great opportunity to do dark sky astrophotography with my Google Pixel. I was so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself. The visit was also the same weekend of the Perseids meteor shower peak.
Dark Sky Astrophotography
In the category of “don’t let this happen to you,” I completely forgot every technique I learned previous to this night. My sky glow filter never made it out of the case, I left my red flashlight at home and the barlow stayed in the case as well. For you this is the reality of astrophotography, not every night goes according to plan. I normally just take video of the planets, but this night I ended with a few shots of the Milky Way. Here the theme of “I forgot what to do” continues. I made no exposure adjustments to the Google Pixel camera. I took the photo freehand (no tripod). Yet, the photo, after post processing, is surprising. You can see Mars and Saturn and the faint glow of the Milky Way. Helpful tip: If you can’t see it, turn up the brightness on your screen. Needless to say my first Dark Sky Astrophotography session was almost a complete bust.
It Was Fun Regardless
When I arrived at the top of the mountain, my two guests J10 and J12 (shorthand for 2 of my 3 kids) quickly began to complain. I was too cold and too many people were said in chorus. I picked a spot and set up my Meade EXT-125 telescope. The night began with showing numerous guests Venus, Juipter, Saturn and Mars. It was a beautiful sight, the sky was clear and the number of stars visible numbered in the thousands. If you have never been to a dark sky location, plan a get away and go. Not only is dark sky astrophotography better there, but the views are priceless. I live very close to several large cities and the light pollution is hiding all the beauty.
Never Stop Learning
A few meteors cross the sky spectacularly then I’m requested to help another work her Nikon DSLR camera. Cool I thought, this would be interesting. So I proceeded to discuss long exposure photography tips I learned online (of which I’m not an expert).
Hopefully, the results were good. In addition to the Milky Way photo, I captured the four planets shown in the picture above. Again none were taken with a filter or Barlow lens. I guess I lost myself once I saw the clarity of these planets in my scope. Venus was first and is in a quarter phase. Then Jupiter put on a show as always. The visitors kept asking me to view Jupiter more than any other of the four. Once Saturn appeared, I lost most of my guests and began to capture the video I would later edit. Finally Mars came into view and I completed my night with complaints again from my two guests.
My Dark Sky Astrophotography Results
I combined my edits into one photo because the planets are small in the photos. The detail in all of them are better than what I get at home. You can see some of the dark regions of Mars and the definition in the cloud bands on Jupiter are supurb. Dark sky astrophotography is my ultimate target condition. Although my results cannot rival many others, they will soon. Thanks for your feedback on my experience and clear skies!
Buying a telescope is much like buying a car. Asking a car owner “What car should I buy?” will lead to a multitude of answers. This can be confusing and even deter you from making the purchase. My first post discusses my personal experience with the “What telescope shall I buy?” question. Below is my infographic telescope buying guide to help you with this process.
Interested in creating photos like this using smartphone astrophotography? This list has six of my overall steps. Including those I’ve used to create this photo of Saturn and are easy for you to adopt. Try this and let me know your results. Clear and dark skies!