Imaging the Cosmos … Is It For Me?

Welcome to the Yukon Winter Night Sky and all the cosmic treasures that are just waiting for you to discover and photograph them.

The weather has been unstable, with storm fronts continually moving in, bringing lots of clouds and very uncertain night skies. These are trying times for amateur astronomers and completely frustrating times for doing astrophotography.

People ask, “What is the great attraction to astrophotography, what does it take to get involved and is it for me?”

The fine art of astrophotography can be very rewarding, letting you photograph the great night sky and all its amazing sights with a mechanical motor that allows the camera/telescope to move with the night sky. It is also an excellent way to share your night-time deep-sky adventures with all the normal people who are, of course, sound asleep while you are busy scanning and imaging the night sky.

Astrophotography, commonly known as deep-sky imaging, is a combination of astronomy and photography. Until just a few years ago, this was only performed by large observatories with expensive imaging equipment and was out of reach to backyard astronomers.

Once again, the amazing world of technology comes to the rescue.

Ten or so years ago, as I first arrived on the astronomy scene, astrophotography was very expensive. A good solid mount would set you back around $4,000-plus and that is just the mount. Add to that a nice high-end refractor for another three grand and finally there is the camera and all the lenses and adaptors to complete your imaging set up.

Deep-sky imaging can be done now at an entry-level price of around a thousand dollars or so and it is a lot easier these days, especially with off-the-shelf Digital SLR cameras at such an affordable price.

The results are amazing and there for everyone to see, just open a copy of Sky News or Sky and Telescope magazine.

Much like astronomy, deep sky-imaging can be challenging.

In astronomy, there are different levels that one can enjoy the hobby, from the casual viewing of constellations and wide-field scanning with binoculars, to solar system objects including the sun, moon and planets. After that, you will move to the real deep sky, including nebulas, star clusters and galaxies.

With deep-sky imaging, you start by taking wide-field constellation shots and then you move to taking pictures of the sun, moon and the planets.

At this point, deep-sky imaging is still reasonably easy to control, but you really have to pay attention closely. A temperature drop of just a few degrees will put your camera and telescope out of focus, due to the metal telescope tube contracting in the cold.

Now comes the real challenge: long exposure deep-sky imaging. Start by locating a really dark observing site far from man-made lights. Everything must be set just right and checked regularly. Polar alignment of your telescope has got to be dead on the money, no exceptions.

Camera batteries and telescope power systems have to be maintained continually. If your power drops, so does the tracking on your telescope and, therefore, so does the picture. You have to remember that with deep-sky imaging, the object that you are taking a picture of is moving and your telescope mount has to track it very accurately.

To image a galaxy or nebula to any degree, one must have the camera shutter open anywhere from five minutes to an hour. A slight wind that vibrates the mount even the smallest amount will leave its telltale mark as a set of squiggly lights on your picture.

If your telescope mount is not polar aligned properly, the stars will streak, leaving you with a poor, distorted image. Then of course there is the occasional satellite that cruises right through your image leaving a streak of light right across your picture. To this day, I still think this looks cool.

Yes, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, but after spending many nights working out the kinks, it becomes easier and with greater results.

So, if you like to be out in the middle of the wilderness, high on a lonely mountaintop with lots of funky electronic gadgets, late at night, with nothing but the cosmos to keep you company, then deep-sky imaging is for you.

There is an awesome feeling when you are out in the field doing deep-sky imaging. With telescope motors humming away and camera gear on the go, it is the ultimate way to experience the universe from our humble planet.

Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

High Lights

Nov. 13 Full Moon.

Nov. 17 Leonid Meteor Shower, washed out again by moonlight.

Nov. 19 Last quarter Moon.

Nov. 27 New Moon.

Nov. 30 Venus and Jupiter make a nice pairing in the early evening sky.

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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