A NEWBIE'S JOURNEY INTO LIGHT

By

Kirby Benson


Having always been more interested in astrology than astronomy, metaphysics over physics and art rather than arc, it was not only surprising to my wife but also to me when one day August of 2003 I announced, "I'm going to get a telescope and have a look at Mars." Thus began my involvement with astronomy. This did indeed seem strange to both of us since most of my adult life has been spent working in the fields of art and psychotherapy and I was required to take "bonehead" math my senior year of high school in order to graduate.

Well, that first 4.5 inch f/5 reflector telescope was not much to rave about and in fact, it was pretty lousy for viewing Mars since it looked like a slightly large star. However, in February of 2004 I replaced it with an Orange tube vintage 1970's C8 that I found on eBay and began the search for star clusters and the occasional nebula. I hauled it on camping trips and into the front yard a few times and then put it away for several months having other commitments that required lots of time and energy, often away from home.

Sometime in the late fall of 2005 I ran across a couple of internet articles discussing the use of Web Cams and Digital cameras for taking pictures of deep sky objects and the planets. This really caught my interest, since like most of us I had always been impressed with those beautiful deep sky images seen on telescope boxes and in magazines.

After some research on the Web I was ready to tackle this web cam thing. I charged downtown and purchased a Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000, tore it open, removed the IR filter and glued a film can onto the front of it so I could put it into my diagonal. Here is the product of all this industry - my first image, and of Mars no less. It was taken sometime in November of 2005.





Flushed with success and excited over my obvious mastery of web cam imaging I decided to venture into the world of the digital camera. I owned an Olympus Digital 4000 that I used for photos of artwork to put in my portfolio. This would allow up to 15 seconds of exposure and should, in my mind, do pretty well with M 42, the Great Orion Nebula. A camera adapter from Scopetronics was all I needed to capture this image with my Orange C8 in December of 2005:





I am sure all my friends enjoyed receiving this in an email and then perhaps wondering, "What is it?" I told my wife Judy that we should probably use this image for our Christmas cards. She firmly replied, "I don't think so."

Well, finally realizing the limitations of only 15 seconds of exposure I decided it may be time to move up into the world of CCD cameras and rub shoulders with the big time Dudes and Dudettes of astrophotography.

Having seen the marvelous nebula and galaxy pictures on the Meade website I figured the Meade DSI would be the camera for me. But being somewhat frugal by nature I blanched at the 300.00 dollar price tag. It wasn't until somewhat later that it began to percolate down into my tiny brain that this hobby is EXPENSIVE! However I summoned up my courage and went in pursuit of the Meade Color DSI Camera I now thought would probably be the last piece of astrophotography equipment I would ever buy or need. Fortunately, a local friend who sells on eBay had a new one for sale that I purchased for a small reduction in price from full retail. I was now ready to get really serious about astronomy and imaging.

Once again, other responsibilities drew my attention away from astronomy. The Meade DSI went onto the shelf unopened and it wasn't until the end of 2006 that I pulled the old Orange C8 baby out of hiding, dusted off the DSI and started re-learning the little bit I had forgotten.

After about of week studying the Meade Envision software (which I still don't understand) I felt confident enough to capture M 42, The Great Orion Nebula, around the first week of January 2007. I knew I was on the way to becoming an expert at image processing having accomplished the difficult task of stacking two 30 second exposures in order to produce this image:





However, it was not long before I became dissatisfied with the Meade DSI as the amp glow from this camera was causing me all kinds of problems. I did not know at that time that this is a common problem with non-cooled cameras and thought perhaps I had a faulty CCD chip. With some web searching and research I found out un-cooled cameras are, well, un-cool and if I wanted to get really, really good at this I would need a TEC cooled camera.

I was beginning to now feel like the frog that is being slowly boiled. I failed to fully realize (or did not want to fully realize) that I was spending LOTS of money on astronomy and imaging equipment with no end in sight. I was somewhat able to justify all these expenditures as being in the category of medical expenses. You know - good therapy to maintain mental acuity and avoid becoming depressed by being continually distracted through encounters with a never ending set of problems, confusing directions, frustrations, and challenges.

So what would a good TEC cooled camera look like? Well, it looked like an Orion Star Shoot Color with TEC. It was about this time that Orion stopped producing the camera and just as I was hot for one it became scarcer than hen's teeth. I did finally run one down at a dealer that had a few left. Also at this time I figured out that the old Orange C8 just wasn't up to the tasks I had in mind so I began hunting around for the legendary Losmandy GM-8 with the Gemini system (this last item being necessary since I never have been able to understand the little dials and numbers signifying Right Ascension and Declination and how to make them work).

Well, I did find a nice used GM-8 and Gemini for sale and it came in about the same time as the Orion Star Shoot in early 2007. I also found a good, slightly used C8 OTA and also put that on the tab.

It was also about this time I decided it would be good to join the local astronomical society. I had met Nils Allen sometime earlier and heard his pitch for ASLC. Since Nils seemed like such a nice guy I figured it couldn't be too scary to join the organization. I knew I would feel intimidated by so many experts but also knew I needed to face my fears and besides I could always just nod and look knowledgeable. So far, it seems to be working.

After lots of trial runs in the house I finally got out in January and shot one of my first images with the Orion Star Shoot, C8, Losmandy GM-8 and the Gemini. This is NGC 2244 the star cluster and NGC 2237, The Rosette Nebula:


What? You don't recognize it?



At this point I had not yet comprehended the concept of mount guiding, although I had seen it mentioned on the internet, and was somewhat disappointed when many of my images turned out with oblong and streaked stars. I now had learned that I would need to limit my imaging time per frame down to 30 to 45 seconds if I didn't want stars that looked like those night time pictures of cars on a freeway. Although my mount had a polar scope I found it difficult to use and understand all the little lines that were marked all over it. So, when and if I could find Polaris, I would put it in the center of the scope and hope for the best.

It really was time to attempt guiding since by now it was obvious I would need to learn to do it if I wanted to get beyond the 45 second limit. I found a new Stellarvue NightHawk 80mm refractor on eBay and bought it. I also found the necessary items to connect it to the top of my C8 and start guiding. By using the Nebulosity imaging software with the PhD guiding software I was all set to go.

I persevered, learned some very basic concepts concerning guiding with the help of Bob Long, who for some strange reason took pity on me, and by the end of February 2007 I was able to produce these two images of M 101 and M 51:







The main issue I was now facing was the fact my two telescopes and cameras (The DSI for guiding and the Orion SS for imaging) created a weight problem. My mount was rated for 30 pounds and I was carrying about 32 pounds. Steve Barkes suggested I lower the mount as far as it would go and get some anti-vibration pads for the feet. This I did and found it somewhat helpful but still not completely to my liking.

Also at this time I was finally able to break through my denial and fully realize that I would be spending all the money on astronomy and photography equipment that my wife and I had put aside for our old age and that we would probably need to cut back on food and other necessities in the near future. Feeling much freer and truly existential now that I had accepted my destiny I ordered a Vixen ED 103mm refractor to be shortly followed by a Vixen 80mm refractor that Vixen America was selling at a much reduced price to eliminate all their inventory.

This was a spiffy looking setup that lightened my mount load significantly and I knew it would impress everyone at the Texas Star Party. Well, as everyone knows, the TSP came and wet, but I did learn some important things while hobnobbing with the ASLC Imaging Masters. One of those things was that it is possible to take stunning images with Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras and specifically the Canon 350D that has been modified to capture emission nebula such as the Pelican or North American Nebula. I was skeptical at first but Dave Dockery and Rich Richens assured me it would work. Jerry Graber, Steve Smith and George Hatfield gave that a second and I was now convinced enough that I began to plan my strategy on how to persuade my wife this was something we could also use to take pictures of her pets.

It arrived in early June and by now I had learned enough about guiding that I was able to get my first real picture of a nebula. This is the North American Nebula with 15 images at 5 minutes each and 8 dark frames. I was now using ImagesPlus software to image and stack and Photoshop to finish the processing.





Shortly after this image was taken Bob Long began to help me understand how astronomy images are processed in Photoshop and as much as I loath it, I read parts of a couple of books on the subject. It also must be said that soon after I joined ASLC earlier in the year I began to post some of my attempts on the ASLC Imagers Yahoo! Group and was given lots of encouragement and suggestions on how to improve. I believe someone even said it would be helpful to take the lens cover off the telescope.

Bob and many others in ASLC also continue to attempt to help me understand arcane things such as image scale, matching the camera to the telescope, proper guiding speeds and so forth. Not having a head for numbers very little of it sticks but I do go back to the notes I take (when I can find them on a desk piled high with bits and pieces of paper and bills for astronomy equipment) and continue to try and make sense out of all of it from time to time.

Continuing to work with the same equipment it was in late July I was able to produce this image of M8 and M20 with 12 frames at 300 seconds each along with 3 darks from the dark sky site at Blue Mesa:




Sometimes I would send a finished image to Bob Long for a review before posting it to the ASLC Imagers group on the web. He generally pointed out things that were not done well and it would be back to the drawing boards for more tedious hours of attempting to learn Photoshop processing techniques. There were often notations at the bottom of his emails that went something like, "How do you expect to gain a seat on the Galactic Council with a picture like this?"

Reveling under harsh criticism I persevered with my Canon and in early November managed to produce this B 33 Horsehead image with 28 frames at 180 seconds each and 4 dark frames:




What I was being taught was that to be successful in capturing a good image it was important to not jump around and try to do several in one evening but rather image only one thing and if time allows (before you fall asleep, starve or freeze to death) go for one other. In addition, it is best to run the camera as long as possible before noise sets in on each frame in order to gather the most data unless the target will not allow overly long exposures before flooding out with bright pixels. I have discovered that gaining familiarity with the equipment is very important in order to gain some sense of what its limitations are.

I began to feel that by late 2007 I had gained enough experience that I could now begin to draw somewhat on my background as an artist and start thinking about basic design principles and aesthetic considerations such as cropping out parts that may upset the sense of asymmetrical balance. Or by moving the emphasis of the target to a more dramatic position in the composition by eliminating parts of a side or top or bottom. In addition, manipulating the framing of the DSO in the original view from the camera can give some measure of control over the final composition. It is hard to improve on nature but the human interface creates another dimension as we stand between nature and the experience of our interpretation of it. Some of these things can be done and attempted with the camera and some with the processing of the images.

There seems to be a fundamental set of expectations in the processing and display of deep sky images and the beginner is encouraged to learn the basic techniques in order for an image to be considered acceptable by the astronomy imaging community. It is critically important to learn these so called rules but as with any form of art it is potentially possible to move way beyond the basics and bring elements of creativity to the process that transcend the boundaries that have been established. This implies risk and can challenge us to move past our preconceptions of what is right and wrong in astrophotography.

And last of all, here is M 42 The Great Orion nebula that was done in early December of 2007. It is 35 frames at 120 seconds each combined with 30 frames of the trapezium at 30 seconds.





This image includes some experimental sharpening techniques that Tony Gondola brought to my attention in order to bring out more detail that contributes to the overall clarity of the picture.

Since I began this journey into astronomy I have not yet given much consideration to the metaphysical, spiritual or the mythic of deep sky or close sky objects. Perhaps that will change and more of the invisible and spiritual dimensions of space will begin to reveal themselves as time unfolds. I do know that this pursuit is mind expanding in ways I cannot really put into words very well - experiencing the nature of the universe and the immensity of it all. By considering the dimensions of birth and death at the scale of the Universe and attempting to relate those to a personal experience on Earth challenges the mind to move beyond the limits of our sensory perceptions.

It really is mind-boggling - isn't it?