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Backyard astronomy and the Orion Nebula (Messier 42)

February 8th, 2013 No comments

I haven’t done any official research, but my guess is amateur astronomy buffs spend most of their astronomy time in their backyards.  Home-based astronomy is great because it’s “right there.”  It’s easy to set up your telescope and view the planets, moon, and maybe even some darker deep space objects like galaxies and nebulae.

One of the bad parts about backyard astronomy is light pollution.  NASA recently published images of the entire world’s “light map” taken at night from space.  If you live in the US, odds are you live in one of the bright areas of the image below.

NASA's US at Night

In general, those bright spots are concentrations of people.  For some crazy reason, people like things like street lights.  Those street lights wreck havoc on the darkness of the night sky.  When I was young, we lived outside town far enough that I spent many mornings admiring the stars while waiting for the school bus.  I used to imagine what each star was like and wondered if anyone else was out there.  In many cities, only a few stars are ever visible to the naked eye.  That definitely makes it tough to be inspired by the night sky.

Just recently, my neighborhood replaced all of the halogen street lights with LEDs.  Their goal was to save money on electricity.  A great side benefit was the light pollution near my home dropped quite a bit.  I still have the glowing fireball of Las Vegas to the north of my home, but the skies are fairly dark to the south.

I have to admit that, despite living in my home for over 3 years, I’ve never done any astrophotography from my backyard.  I assumed that because I lived in a big town, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.  Turns out, I was wrong.

Two nights ago I dragged out the telescope, cameras, laptop, tables, power cords, and piles of USB cables.  I did a quick polar alignment using my Celestron CGEM’s built-in polar star alignment routine.  I centered the scope on the Orion Nebula and started shooting photos.  The skies were dark enough that my camera was able to capture up to 5 minute exposures without being too blown out from the light pollution.

Over a couple hours, I took a total of 25 shots of the Orion Nebula ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes each.  I crunched all the data yesterday and ended up with a backyard astrophoto that I’m happy with.  Here’s the result (click on the photo to see the full sized version).

M42 photo details:  Explore Scientific ED127, Celestron CGEM, SBIG STF-8300C, 5x300 sec, 10x30 sec, 5x60sec, processed in Nebulosity & Photoshop.  Imaging and processing by Bryan Duke.

M42 photo details: Explore Scientific ED127, Celestron CGEM, SBIG STF-8300C, 5×300 sec, 10×30 sec, 5x60sec, processed in Nebulosity & Photoshop. Imaging and processing by Bryan Duke.

So, what do you think?  I think you should go outside and look at the stars.  Find Orion.  It’s just south of “straight up” at about 8pm.  Try to find the Orion Nebula.  It’s the jewel in Orion’s sword.  There it is.

Winter targets – Pleiades, Orion and Rosette

February 7th, 2010 No comments

Winter is a wonderful time of year for viewing.  Winter brings air with low absolute humidity and great deep space targets.  If you’re into astrophotography, the colder temps will help keep the noise down in long exposures of your digital camera.  The down side is that cold winter air tries its best to break your will to enjoy the skies.

In the northern hemisphere, winter brings some of my favorite visual and photo deep space objects into view.  Before Christmas, Pleiades (Seven Sisters, Messier 45) is overhead at sunset.  With even modest binoculars you can clearly break out more than just seven sisters.  A low power telescope and non-city skies reveals a hint of nebulosity connecting the cluster.  Sixty second photos start to break out the Pleiades’ striking cotton candy-like blue nebulosity.

The #1 beginner astrophotography target in the winter has to be the Orion Nebula (M42).  The nebula’s intricate details bring pro photographers back year after year.  In January and February, M42 is high overhead at sunset.  It’s so bright that even here in the Las Vegas suburbs you can see its blur of nebulosity with unaided eyes.  It’s brightness definitely lends itself to budding astronomers and astrophotographers alike.  The triangulum region and nebula is nearly as striking the first time you see them as Saturn’s rings.  Beginner astrophotographers can test their polar alignment and focusing skills by taking simple 30 second photos of the nebula.  Shooting prime through most telescopes at ISO1600 and 30 seconds, much of the nebula – including its color – is visible.  Over a 30 second exposure, most equatorial or wedge-mounted fork mounts can get by at least half the time without any manual or autoguiding.  The photo below shows the Orion Nebula at, to the right, its companion the Running Man Nebula.  It was taken by a Canon 5D Mark II through a Celestron 80ED.  It’s a combination of 5 unguided shots at 30 seconds and ISO1600 and 5 unguided shots at 30 seconds and ISO3200 (with processing in Nebulosity and Photoshop).

A great, but more challenging target for later in the winter is the Rosette Nebula (NGC 2244).  Its brightness is spread across a huge area over a degree across.  The star cluster near its center lets you know you’ve found it.  Multiple autoguided exposures of 5 minutes or more are best to bring out all of the Rosette’s size and gorgeous detail.

This winter (2010) Mars is also a good show.  While not as big in your eyepiece as four years ago, the red planet is still worth a place on your winter viewing list.  Don’t procrastinate though.  It’ll retreat to just a spec before too long.

So, bundle up & enjoy the winter skies.  Share your eyepiece and photos with friends and family.  Find a target that “wows” you and introduce children & adults to the stars.