M81 & M82 – Bodes Galaxy & Cigar Galaxy

Well, it’s been a while. The weather here in the UK has been non-stop cloud and rain for the past two weeks straight. Had no chance to take my telescope out and do any more imaging.

However, this Friday, there was a break in the weather and finally managed to get out and get some time on one of my favourite galaxy clusters – M81 and M82 – as well as try and see comet Neowise.

I left my imaging rig ready in my back garden, and let it acclimatise to the ambient temperature. While that was happening, I decided to go up my local hill that’s the highest point for miles, with a clear horizon in all directions. However, there was just too much cloud in the north east on the horizon, so couldn’t see anything of the comet. However, it did make me realise how much light pollution there is to the east of me. With Wolverhampton, Bilston and Birmingham stretching from the north-east to the south-east of my location, it’s covered in large amounts of orange street lamps from the largely industrial Black Country. However, to the west, there’s hardly any light pollution at all as you look over towards the Brecon Beacons. I’m situated literally on the edge of the conurbation, giving me Bortle 6 skies.

Beacon Hill – Black Country Conurbation to the Right.

I can see a light pollution filter being purchased sooner rather than later!

Once I returned home, I started setting up my rig for a night of imaging. I polar aligned, and chose a 3-star alignment using Vega, Caph and Dubhe, as the cluster is right off the end of Ursa Major. Slowly, my polar alignment is getting better; this was only the 3rd time I have polar aligned and apparently my polar alignment error was near perfect.

I was tempted to do polar alignment correction via the SynScan handset to eliminate those last few minutes, but it was getting on past 11PM and I wanted to start imaging.

I did a couple of test exposures and settled on 60-second exposures with ISO800. I’ve learnt from watching people on YouTube and reading the astrophotography forums that you need a minimum of 3-hours on a galaxy to get any clear detail. So I decided to do 200 exposures, which would take me up till about 2AM, with darks and bias frames taken into account.

So I set the intervalometer going and left it be and went inside to keep warm, occasionally checking on it. I could see it through the window and could see the right light flashing with each exposure. I thought great, going to get over 2.5 hours worth, I can always add to it tomorrow.

I returned to it near the end of the run at around 1:30PM, and my camera had frozen. Couldn’t press any buttons, couldn’t view any photos, couldn’t even switch it off; the screen remained on. At this point I started to panic! The only thing I thought was to remove the battery and re-insert it. The camera came back on and I hastily checked my images.

IT HADN’T SAVED ANY OF MY 2 HOURS WORTH OF EXPOSURES! I could have screamed at 2AM in the morning, I was so angry! I looked at the clock on the wall and it was 1:45AM at this point. I wasn’t going to let the evening go to waste, so I decided to do another hour or so of exposures with me stood outside checking it constantly.

I finally got to bed at around 3AM that night, still furious, but relieved I hadn’t completely wasted an evening. The following morning I stacked my 60 frames along with some flat frames that I took, and got the following photograph.

First Attempt at M81 & M82

I was happy with this for only 1 hours worth. You could start to see the spiral arms of Bodes Galaxy, and the detail certainly comes through on the Cigar Galaxy.

The following evening, I set up again with a similar polar alignment error, and managed to get a similar composition as the night before. This time, I set my intervalometer to only take 30x 60-second exposures at a time. I set a timer on my phone to tell me to go out. In the end, I managed to get another 161 minutes of exposure, along with 10 dark frames before my camera battery finally gave up the ghost at 2:45AM.

But there was a silver lining to the evening, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I managed to take a glance out of my bedroom window. Right between the tress and the next door neighbours house, there it was, clearly visible with the naked eye. Comet Neowise.

It’s the first comet that I have laid my eyes on, and it was spectacular! I did wonder if I should go and get my camera and a fresh battery. But somethings should just be viewed and appreciated in the moment.

Then this morning I combined all my subs together giving me a total exposure of 226 minutes, or 3 hours 46 minutes.

Now this I am happy with!

It just proves that Rule No.1 of Astrophotography is 100% correct – There’s no substitution for exposure!

M81 & M82 – Bodes Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy

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