Imaging and Processing the Full Moon – January 2018

It’s the start of a new year and already we have had our ‘super moon’ of 2018 in the skies; on the 1st January 2018, the moon reached its perigee – the point in its orbit when it is closest to Earth. This creates a phenomena where the moon near the horizon appears bigger than normal (it isn’t actually much bigger; the effect is an optical illusion).

Luckily, I had clear skies on New Year’s Day, when the moon was at 100%, and so set about shooting video to process into a moon shot.

I tried this earlier last year with some success but the image ended up with ghosting artifacts which really annoy me so I wanted a chance to reshoot and try a new approach.

I used my Skywatcher 80ED scope with an Altair Hypercam IMX178c. I use this camera for planetary and lunar work and find it is excellent for both. For capture, I used the current beta of Sharpcap which has a few cool features. Firstly, Sharpcap helps automate focusing which is a real help when seeing isn’t great – focusing on the moon, especially in urban areas, is difficult as atmospheric conditions cause the image to shift in and out of focus. Sharpcap has a feature that helps average focusing across a number of frames and moves the focuser through a series of steps. I tend to run this a few times to account for focuser backlash and to find the sweet spot for my focus.

Once focused, then the real magic happens. Sharpcap beta has a ‘seeing monitor’ function where you can select a lower limit on seeing conditions based on a graph that is produced as the camera gathers frames. You can also set a frame count so that your video will contain much higher quality frames so will produce cleaner stacks later on.

Why video? Sheer force of numbers. I can’t quite fit the moon onto my sensor using the 80ED so I need to shoot two images and then merge them together. Each ‘image’ is the result of a stack in Autostakkert!3 and the stacks are made from .ser video files of 5,000 frames each! When I stack, I select the top 5% only to make sure that my image is as good as it can be, given the conditions I shoot under.

Once stacked, I ended up with two .TIFF files that need combining. I use Image Composite Editor, a free (!!) program from Microsoft that works seamlessly (sorry!) to create a composite image.

Until now, I would then load the image into Registax and play with the voodoo wavelets until something useful appeared, but I had issues with the final image that always seemed to have horizontal and vertical lines embedded into it, and which I would have to then spend time cloning out in Photoshop.

No longer! I discovered a plug in by Astra Image that provides brilliant sharpening filters for Photoshop that are, in my experience, far superior to Registax.

I processed the composite image using the filters before using three saturation adjustment layers (60%, 30% & 15%) then creating contrast using curves. The final image shows the colours of the mineral content on the surface of the moon and creates, in my opinion, a far more interesting image than the more common grey / mono images.

I am much happier with this image when compared to the one I processed last October. The detail is stronger and the focus is much tighter. Next, I plan to use my 8″ reflector with a 2x Barlow to draw out some more surface detail of craters.

To help learn the Moon’s features, I found a helpful website that identifies areas you hover over.

Perigee Moon - 1st Jan 2018 Higher resolution on my Astrobin account

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Imaging NGC 1976: The Great Nebula of Orion & Running Man

UK skies often mean imaging under less than optimal conditions – this year has been particularly poor in terms of clear skies. It seems all we’ve had is rain and cloud so, whenever the skies are clear, I need to get out and have a go. And so it was last Wednesday, when a clear 12 hour night clashed with a 61% moon phase. I decided to throw caution to the wind and try and image the Great Nebula of Orion, NGC 1976. I had just received a 0.85x field flattener and reducer for my 80ED scope and wanted to test how it worked. I decided to try for 5 hours on Orion, once the moon had moved further towards the western horizon, and hoped that my clip-in CLS filter would be effective.

I also decided to shoot at two exposures and try out PixInsight’s HDR image process to try and bring out the core while still capturing the outer nebulosity.

I shot the following sequence:

30 x 10s
10 x 300s
20 flats
No darks (but extreme dithering)

The average sensor temperature was 4c for the 10 secs and 13c for the longer 300 sec exposures. I also paused for 45 secs between each frame, and dithered every other frame on high settings.

The star field turned out really well – pretty round right to the extremities – and the SNR was good, especially on the 300 sec subs.

My processing in PixInsight was a little unusual – I’m not sure how it ended up as vibrant as it did; I did saturate but not a lot – the data just seemed to go in this direction. It might be because i have started using the ArcSin stretch process which seems to retain colour a lot, especially reds which probably amplified the results from my modded DSLR. Whatever the reasons, I do like the result! I will have another go at processing it using a more conventional workflow, but I am definitely keeping this as an alternative take on NGC 1976.

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A more conventional presentation on my Astrobin Account

It was quite flattering that my image got selected by Flickr on the 29th to appear on their end of year Explore feed so that opened up my Flickr account to a whole new audience.

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My first year in Astro Imaging

What an exciting year it’s been – my first year imaging planets, the moon and, best of all; deep sky objects! I bought my first telescope on the 18th December 2016 – a Celestron 130SLT which I planned on using purely for lunar observing. I quickly realised that I’d like to be able to image the moon’s surface and so began searching for tips on how I could connect my Canon 100 DSLR to the scope. Quickly it became apparent that it would involve moving the primary mirror – something I wasn’t prepared to do at that stage so I kept my eye out for a cheapish second deal on a scope, buying a brilliant Skywatcher 80ED scope second hand.

It had started.

I realised that I needed an EQ mount to really get more than lunar shots and, luckily, a friend offered me his old one for free to allow me to get started. Suddenly I was off – I had a scope, a camera and an EQ mount. I kitted out an old laptop with free sofware, and a copy of BackyardEOS and set about learning my craft. I quickly realised that this was not going to be an easy hobby (or a cheap one). I needed a method of guiding so converted an old finder scope to accept an Altair GPCAM 130 camera and I was in business.

It took a while to master polar alignment (this was before Sharpcap introduced their awesome polar alignment software) and my guiding was terrible. Nevertheless, I persevered until finally, I stumbled across my first galaxy and grabbed a smudged blur but it was my first true DSO image and I was so proud!

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M81 Bode’s Galaxy April 2017

Seeing that glimpse of another galaxy was truly mind blowing. The numbers involved were staggering – those photons captured that cold night in April had taken approximately 12 million years to reach my sensor. I was looking at millions upon millions of star systems in a galaxy outside of our own; a place we will never travel to as humans and yet I was capturing all of this from my backyard in Yorkshire, UK.

Looking at this image now – my first ever DSO – I am still moved by the capabilities offered to today’s amateur astronomers. I am also incredibly thankful to all those who have become my friends, and who have guided and supported me in my hobby.

To cut a long story a little shorter, I quickly progressed on a new mount (a Skywatcher EQ6-r pro) and several new scopes (Skywatcher 200pds and 130pds), a new imaging system (QHY163m & filters) and new software (Sequence Generator Pro) but I still go out and use my 80ED and (now modded) Canon DSLR for sheer simplicity. I revisted Bode’s Galaxy again recently, on the same set up and gathered this image:

M81 & M82 Bode's Nebulae Nov 2017

M81 & M82 Bode’s Nebulae Nov 2017

This image, more than  anything, shows how much I have learned over the course of this year, and how much I have still to learn!

I have shot extensively in narrowband over the course of the summer, capturing such targets as:

NGC 281 Pacman Nebula

NGC 281 Pacman Nebula

and

IC 5070 Pelican Nebula

IC 5070 Pelican Nebula

And finally, back into Autumn, I managed to capture the two targets I most wanted:

M31 Andromeda

and the beautiful Horsehead Nebula:

Horsehead Nebula

I know I have much to learn – my processing is still crude and overdone, and my equipment needs overhauling (such as to remove split diffraction spikes) but it has been an amazing first year and I am so looking foward to revisiting a lot of these targets and reshooting them in 2018.

Thank you to everyone who has helped support me and my development – and special thanks to Trevor from AstroBackyard.com whose site and YouTube channel probably did more than anything else to help push my progress this year for which I am very grateful.

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