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The How To...

Below you can read about the process it takes to build such beautiful images of our Galaxy and beyond. I have broken it up into three sections; planning, data gathering, and processing. Each are just as important as the other yet there is no one single way to accomplish each one. This is just a quick outline of my current method of gathering and processing my images.

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Planning

The initial phase of planning my night's celestial target involves launching Stellarium, a free software program, to explore the night sky's offerings. Once I've identified my chosen target, I proceed to determine the ideal field of view (FOV) and orientation that best aligns with it. Unlike those with multiple telescopes, cameras, and focal reducers at their disposal, my setup is relatively straightforward, making this planning aspect quite straightforward for me.

With this foundation in place, the next step involves configuring my automated sequence using N.I.N.A. Given that I currently work exclusively with a monochrome camera, this stage is particularly important. I input the specifics of the target I intend to capture, specifying the number of subs (individual images) I wish to obtain for each filter, the exposure duration for each image, and the ISO or Gain setting, which determines the camera sensor's sensitivity to light. A noteworthy point here is that higher ISO/Gain settings can lead to increased noise relative to the signal. Thus, striking the right balance tailored to your specific camera is imperative.

The final element of my planning process entails venturing into my backyard to identify the optimal location for setting up my equipment. Several criteria come into play. Firstly, I ensure an unobstructed view of Polaris, essential for precise polar alignment. Secondly, I strive to maximize the productive time spent on my target, given the presence of trees and houses in my surroundings. Properly positioning my rig can translate into gaining an additional hour of imaging time.

Now that the "what," "where," and "how" are meticulously sorted, it's time to execute the plan...

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Data Gathering

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Honestly, this phase, while seemingly straightforward, can also be the most exasperating part of the entire process, where the harmonious marriage of software and hardware takes center stage. It's a realm where unexpected hiccups can put one's patience to the test, and I've teetered on the brink of quitting this hobby more than once.

The initial step, once I've meticulously set up my rig and the North Star graces the evening sky, is the crucial task of Polar Alignment. All the stars in the night sky revolve around Polaris, and this forms the bedrock of accurate guiding. To achieve this, I employ a software program called SharpCap to execute Plate Solving, a method that uses my guide camera to analyze visible stars. It then provides precise instructions for me to adjust my mount physically until I achieve a perfect alignment with Polaris. With my mount now polar-aligned, it's time to zero in on my intended target.

Locating my target used to be the most time-consuming aspect of data collection. Thanks to a GoTo mount, that's no longer the case. I simply select my target within N.I.N.A., and it effectively communicates with the mount, directing my telescope to the general vicinity of the target. Subsequently, with the assistance of my Electronic Automatic Focuser (EAF), I initiate an autofocus routine that uses captured images to fine-tune the focus until it achieves perfection.

With my focus firmly locked onto the target, I activate my auto-guiding software, aptly named PHD2 (PushHereDummy2, to be precise). PHD2 operates by employing the guide scope and camera to essentially "lock" onto a star and meticulously guide the mount to a deviation of less than a single pixel. This remarkable precision allows for extended exposures without the disruptive effects of star trailing. My longest exposure time for a single subframe currently stands at an impressive 10 minutes.

Now, it's time to execute the imaging profile. The program commences by utilizing plate solving to confirm the correctness of my field of view and orientation, making any necessary adjustments automatically. It then verifies the functionality of my guiding system and, if needed, initiates another autofocus routine. Once these three critical steps have been seamlessly completed, the imaging process begins in earnest. I often run my imaging sessions from dusk to dawn, fervently hoping that no gremlins will interfere with my efforts.

Here's a rundown of some of the setbacks I've encountered:

  1. Intrusive clouds drifting through my image, causing havoc with guiding.

  2. Bitterly low temperatures causing cables to stiffen and my telescope to get entangled.

  3. My laptop deciding to embark on a Windows update in the dead of night and rebooting.

  4. After a year of successful imaging, dew suddenly opting to settle on my camera sensor cover.

  5. A pesky screw loosening on my auto-focuser, rendering it incapable of correctly turning the knob, after months of faultless operation.

  6. Periodic miscommunications between software and hardware, often during the guiding phase.

  7. Unfavorable atmospheric conditions, such as high clouds or smoke, thwarting efforts to achieve a rock-solid polar alignment.

 

 

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Processing

Processing the collected data marks the ultimate stage in crafting captivating images of our galaxy and beyond. There is no definitive right or wrong approach in this realm; the ultimate measure of success is your own satisfaction with the final result. This is also where the scientific aspect seamlessly melds with artistry, particularly when employing narrowband filters to fashion false-color compositions.

To commence, the initial task involves scrutinizing the amassed data and culling any flawed subframes. Factors such as passing clouds, momentary tracking glitches, or even a brisk breeze can contribute to suboptimal data. Typically, I'll have approximately 30 subframes for each filter, totaling around 90 subframes in all. As the nights stretch longer, the potential to amass more subframes in a single night expands.

Next, it's time to amalgamate the subframes from each filter into a unified image. To accomplish this, I employ a program known as DeepSkyStacker. This software meticulously assesses every subframe, discerns the finest pixels, and amalgamates them to generate a singular image. Upon completion, I'm left with a solitary image for each of my Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur filters, constituting a total of three images.

Subsequently, these three monochrome images are combined into a single color image. In this phase, I rely on PixInsight, a dedicated astrophotography post-processing tool endowed with potent capabilities for enhancing the intricate details. The specific manner in which I blend the HA, O3, and S2 channels into the Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) assigned colors hinges on the nature of the celestial target. The Hubble Palette, where Sulfur corresponds to Red, Hydrogen to Green, and Oxygen to Blue, is a prevalent choice.

At this juncture, the artistic sensibility takes the reins. The genuine hues of emission nebulae are grounded in the colors of Hydrogen (Red) and Sulfur (Red), with Oxygen contributing a blue tint. In the vast expanse of space, green hues are a rarity, reserved mainly for comets. Utilizing Pixinsight, I fine-tune the colors to eliminate any residual green, thus crafting images that reflect more realistic celestial shades. Given the capacity to isolate the distinct gases of the nebula, I can introduce enhanced contrast between these colors, vividly showcasing the dynamic interplay and inherent beauty.

The final stage involves using Photoshop for any requisite noise reduction and color calibration. Once this step is perfected, I imprint my watermark onto the image, save it, and share it across various social media platforms. I derive immense pleasure from each facet of this process, from tinkering with the hardware to mastering fresh techniques in the software. My hope is that you find as much delight in these images as I derive from creating them.

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