For all my of my two years that I’ve been doing Astrophotography, the darkest skies that I have ever had the opportunity’s to feast my eyes on was Bortle 5 at the Wolverhampton Astronomical Society Observatory. However that all changed last weekend!
Through the society, I met a good friend who I helped start his journey into Astrophotography, and in return, he helped me improve my gear – you can read that post here. Well, in the past year he has moved into the middle of the herefordshire countryside, and for the past three times that I have been round I’ve seemingly bought the clouds with me! However, not this time!
Last Friday I finished work at 5PM, loaded my car and set off just as the sun & moon were setting. By the time that I got there though, it was complete astronomical darkness and I have honestly never seen so many stars in my entire life! I was utterly lost in the night sky! It might sound like an exaggeration to some people, but coming from urban skies to completely rural, I’ve never seen such a sight like it! There was a clear band of stars streaking across the night sky, with the concentration increasing as you head towards Cygnus in the north. Makes me wish it was Milky Way core season sooner!
I had loaded my telescope into my car, but I also packed my full camera bag that included the Samyang 135mm from a few posts ago. I’ve also bought some filter adapters that allow me to mount 48mm astro filters to the front 77mm filter thread of the Samyang lens, as shown below. Admittedly, it does reduce the F-ratio down to F/3 from F/2, and cause slight vignetting in an APS-C DSLR, but that doesn’t matter too much as it’s light gathering capability is still much improved over my F/5 130PDS, and the vignetting is perfectly fixed with flat frames..
Please ignore the dust on the front, I did use a rocket blower after it was fitted!
And so I left the 130PDS in the car this night, and just used the Samyang 135 in its 3D printed cradle instead. The AZ-EQ6-GT mount was completely overkill for that little lens, which is more suited to a star track – news on that one to come shortly! Even though the 135mm has got some heft in it being metal bodied, and with the finder scope added on top as extra weight, it still was counterweight-heavy. I tried everything in my little box of bits to add weight on the camera side, but in the end I just had to make the best of it. However, there were no obvious tracking error in any of my subs, so I wasn’t too worried.
I had already decided upon the Flaming Star Nebula as my target for the evening before leaving; it just fits the 130PDS on its own, and then with the 135mm lens, all the other surrounding targets are visible, including the Tadpole Nebula, and Starfish and Pinwheel Clusters. With an apparent size of 37 x 10 arc-minutes, the entire nebula and surrounding region fits within the lower bounds of the constellation of Auriga. The image below clearly shows just how large IC405 actually is, if it was visible to the naked eye in the night sky.
The Flaming Star Nebula lies approximately 1,500 Lightyears away from Earth, with an apparent magnitude of +6. This target lends itself to being easily photographed with longer focal length camera lenses and small telescopes. The nebula is illuminated by the star AE Aurigae, which can be found in the middle of the nebula itself. This blue 0-Type main sequence star is incredibly hot, and produces so much UV light that is ionises the surrounding Hydrogen gas, forming the nebula that we photograph.
IC 405 is a mixture of Hydrogen-Alpha emission and reflection nebulae, with the latter being very faint and taking many hours of exposure to bring to the forefront. Something I did not manage unfortunately.
I started with a few test exposures of 2 and 5 minutes, but both times my histogram was clipping in the blacks, so in the end resorted back to my usual 10 minutes at ISO1600. However, this time round, these were unguided exposures and using N.I.N.A.’s ‘Direct Guider’ to dither between each one. Once again the AZ-EQ6-GT has proven itself an absolute dream of a mount! It performed flawlessly all night long.
Straight away in the first 600-second exposure, the histogram looked really nice, with a clear hump and nothing being clipped in either direction. The nebulosity was so bright and defined that it was visible in the unstretched exposures! I’ve never seen that before from home, it’s always been a black screen! However with the auto stretch turned on, the amount of detail that was visible was truly mind-blowing. With the lack of any real light pollution and the NBZ filter in place, the single 10 minute exposure looked like a final stack from my back garden. I was utterly stunned!!!
Ignoring the odd colour cast of the stars caused by the extreme colour balance on the camera, the image is just superb. I was utterly speechless when the first exposure came through and popped up on the screen. I showed my friend who was continuing with one of his projects, and we both stood there for a good 5 minutes just exploring all the different targets on display,
Fortunately this time round, the weather was crystal clear all night long, and so I ploughed on for as long as I could manage to stay awake for, culminating in 22x 600-second exposures before I lost it behind the tip of the trees.
The final stack only needed very limited processing; balancing the black level, correcting the star colour the best I could and reducing the sheer amount of them that was captured. Where the nebula is positioned in the night sky in the constellation Auriga, the path of the Milky Way runs straight through it. Therefore the whole image was completely dominated by stars, ranging in colour from bright blues to deep oranges. The final image below clearly shoes these different types of stars.
The final stack truly has that ‘wow factor’ about it, as the bright red nebulae seemingly jump straight out of the image. This contrasts beautifully the two bright star clusters towards the top of the frame.
In all honesty, I completely forgot that when my camera is mounted on my 130PDS, it is naturally rotated by 90º. So instinctively I expected the camera lens to be the same, however this wasn’t quite correct. That difference in rotation meant that my framing wasn’t quite what I expected, with plate solving program, ASTAP, saying that I had set the camera orientation at -92º. Naturally, I completely ignored the warning, and so one of the star clusters ended up being cut in half at the top of the frame. Fortunately though, the framing still turned out to be a beautiful composition, highlighting all the emission nebulae in the centre of the region.
To truly show how many targets are in the image, I ran it through the plate solving website Nova.Astrometry.Net, and got the following image back with all the labels superimposed on top.
And just to top it all off, I decided to run it through the Command Line version of Starnet V2, and what an improvement it is over the first well-loved version, Starnet ++.
This version makes the waves and ripples of the Flame Nebula and surrounding area truly sing. These starless images are sometimes seen as marmite within the astro community, however I personally love them! If not by themselves as above, but as a processing tool to allow the nebula to be stretched without affecting the brightness of the stars in the image. When used correctly, it is an invaluable tool.
To round up then, the Samyang 135mm truly lives upto its hype within the astrophotography community – it’s a truly stunning lens! If any reader has the opportunity to purchase one, DO NOT HESITATE!!! It’s worth its weight in gold, I promise you!
In respect to the image, it’s probably one of my top three best images. Recently, my images have slowly been getting to that stage now where I can say, “Yeah, I’m proud of that.” And this is certainly one of them.
It’s nowhere near perfect though! I only realised after the fact, that I focused the lens BEFORE I fitted the IDAS NBZ filter, and so the focus point would have slightly shifted ever so slightly. In hindsight, it’s a rookie error and I should have re-focused every hour, especially with the temperature dropping over the night. But, I learn from my mistakes and I’ll certainly remember to do it next time round.
After a string of clear nights in February, March has turned decidedly cloudy unfortunately, and I honestly don’t know when I shall get back out there under clear skies! This month holds a few astronomy events though which I am looking forward to, including the Practical Astronomy Show on the 19th March in Kettering. I’ll be there, so come say hi! And right at the start of April I will be attending my very first star party, even if it’s a small one with the society, so 2022 is looking increasingly busy so far, so please stay tuned!
Till then, I wish you all the best and clear skies!