Eyes blind with stars

I have always been fascinated by space. Ever since I was a little kid, I could stare for hours at images of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. I truly identified with this:

Without a wish, without a will
I stood upon that silent hill
And stared into the sky until
My eyes were blind with stars and still
I stared into the sky

The Song of Honour, Ralph Hodgson

I devoured Sagan’s Cosmos book and TV series and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in high school. Once I got to college, I took astronomy courses that opened up more opportunities. My freshman year project was the spectroscopic analysis of the Ring Nebula. And while more practical pressures required me to look at a more employable major (economics), my love of everything space-related never left.

Once we moved up to the mountains, the lack of population (= low light pollution) + clear air (at 9,000 feet above sea level) meant I could really indulge. The Milky Way is clearly visible every night. Several nebulae (e.g. Eagle, Lagoon, and of course Orion) are also easily visible with the naked eye. With a little knowledge of where to look, even Andromeda Galaxy can be seen without binoculars.  So I bought a Celestron NexStar 8SE and stayed up whole nights observing. Inevitably, I had to combine it with my love of photography. My first astrophotography attempts started with just pointing the camera at the night sky, before moving onto attaching the camera to the NexStar.

My very first attempt was shooting the summer Milky Way. Unfortunately, the Milky Way traverses the southern sky, which is the most light-polluted section of my sky. However, I was delighted to capture anything.

Milky Way through Sagittarius

One night I pointed the camera towards Andromeda to see if I could capture anything at all. I wasn’t really very hopeful, but lo and behold, there was a little faint smudge. I was beyond thrilled.

Andromeda Galaxy with a regular camera on a tripod

Of course, the moon was always a good subject.

Moonrise over Williams Fork Mountains

After a while I graduated to attaching the camera to the telescope. While the NexStar is not very good for imaging (especially due to the mount), I still got some halfway decent shots. The first target was obviously the moon. It is so bright through the telescope, it actually hurts to look at it for too long.

Moon through the telescope

Moonrise was a great thing to see through the telescope. I tried to capture it and the main problem is that the moon is very low on the horizon, where the air is most disturbed (due to all the day’s heat dissipating). So the image is very blurry, as if being viewed underwater. This was my best attempt:

Moonrise

Moonset was slightly better, especially because it occurred over the western sky, where the 13,000-foot mountains meant that it set relatively high in the sky. The best thing I was able to capture at moonset was earthshine, when the moon is lit up by sunlight reflected off the Earth.

Earthshine

My next attempt was on Jupiter. While a DSLR is not the best camera for capturing planets (webcams are much better since they can shoot continuous video frames), I still gave it a shot. I was very happy to capture the north and south equatorial bands, as well as three moons.

Jupiter with its three moons (from L to R) Ganymede, Io, and Europa

Buoyed by Jupiter, I attempted the most ambitious plan yet: the Orion Nebula. Waited until Orion was high up in the night sky, set everything up carefully and managed to collect 4 minutes of data before the tracking gave out. After several hours of stacking and processing, I was very happy with the final product.

Orion Nebula (M42)

Eventually I added a dedicated imaging telescope, the Astro-Tech AT6-RC. But that’s a story for another night.

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