Following on from my last post with the Andromeda Galaxy, here is another beautiful galaxy which is also part of a group of galaxies known as the Local Group. The Andromeda Galaxy and our own Milky Way are the two largest in the group and this one known as the Triangulum Galaxy is third.
Why the Triangulum Galaxy? This is simply because it can be found in the small constellation of Triangulum – the Triangle! Just about any group of three stars might do, but this particular triangle is found above Aries and below Andromeda.
Again, as with my M31 image, the Optolong L-Extreme filter was used to collect the H-Alpha data which was then blended into the red channel. This enhances the pinky-red regions on nebulosity in the spiral arms of the galaxy.
As usual, click on the image below to see the full-size version.
Messier 31, the great galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda is one of the most photographed night-sky objects of all, probably second only to the Orion Nebula. Every few years I get an itch to image it again. Most astro-photographers like to revisit old targets once in a while, and this often happens when new telescopes and cameras have been purchased, and this is the reason why I’m having another go at this beautiful object. I showed off my new kit in my previous post.
It is often said of M31 that it is the furthest away object that can be seen with the naked eye. This is an amazing thing when you think about it! This galaxy is about 2.5 million light years away and it is the nearest large galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy which is not too different in structure from M31 itself. In a dark, moonless sky, M31 looks like a fuzzy blob to the naked eye. Some people say they can also detect another nearby galaxy called M33 – The Triangulum Galaxy with the naked eye. I personally can’t see M33, but it is further away from us than M31 at around 2.75 million light years, so M33 really does represent the furthest thing anyone can see without optical aid of any kind. I’ve asked a lot of people if they can see M33 in a good, dark sky in the UK, but I’ve never found anyone who can, so I’m happy that those photons that left the Andromeda Galaxy when Homo habilis first walked the Earth, enter my eye and are detected by my retina represent the most ancient particles of light that can ever stimulate the human consciousness.
Here is my latest image of M31. Click on the image below to view a much larger version (4000 pixels across). Next, I will describe some more details of how this image was acquired and processed.
Firstly, what are we looking at here? The first thing to realise is that we are viewing this spiral galaxy from an angle of about 45 degrees. If we could fly over the galaxy and look directly down on it, we would see a vast spiral shape. Another thing to understand is that all of the distinct, bright stars in the image are all relatively close-by stars in our own Milky Way – in other words we are looking through a ‘curtain’ of nearby stars to see outside our own galaxy. We should understand that galaxies are vast islands of stars, separated by huge distances of near-empty space. The Andromeda Galaxy contains about a trillion stars (that’s a million, million stars) which is about twice the number in our own Milky Way galaxy. So, you are looking at all of these trillion stars in this image which are too far away to see them individually, so they glow like a huge mass.
What else can we see here? Well, you will see the dark regions in the galaxy. These are huge lanes of cosmic dust which are obscuring the light from stars behind them. Also, if you zoom in to the big image you will see the disk of red regions that glow around the galaxy. Here’s a zoomed in region that shows the red regions nicely. Each of these red areas shines be the light of Hydrogen-Alpha. All of them would be seen as nebulae to any inhabitants of planets orbiting the stars in M31 and any of them could be the equivalent of, say, the Orion Nebula that we see locally here in our region of the Milky Way.
Lastly, there is a bright elliptical blob showing below M31 in the main image. This is a dwarf elliptical galaxy called M110 which is a satellite to M31 itself. We have similar objects associated with the Milky way and they are known as the large and small Magellanic Clouds.
So, how did I create this image? I used the telescope and camera system I showed in my previous post. Over four clear nights in October 2021, I took lots of long exposure photographs of M31. The telescope was guided very accurately by the separate guide scope that was checking the guiding accuracy every 2 seconds throughout the whole time, and instructed the mount to make tiny corrections to keep the galaxy perfectly still on the chip of the sensitive camera. Eventually I had about 22 hours of exposures stored on my imaging computer. By the time I weeded out the poorer frames, I had 10 hours of data from my broadband luminance filter, and about 7 hours of data from my narrowband filter.
The narrowband filter I used was the 2″ Optolong L-Extreme filter. This passes light from both H-Alpha and Oxygen-III sources, both with a passband of 7nm wide. In this image I only wanted the H-Alpha data, so I extracted the red channel from the narrowband images and threw away the green and blue which shared the OIII signal. Then I merged the H-Alpha signal with the red channel from the broadband RGB images. This enhanced the red emission nebulae in M31 beautifully.
I’ll write a more detailed blog about my process next…
The beautiful Veil Nebula in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan) covers a large apparent area of the sky. When I say ‘large’ I mean it in a relative way. It covers a large enough area to make it hard for the average telescope to cover in one frame. To put this into perspective, the full Moon (or the Sun) is about half a degree across, but we need a field of view (FOV) of about 3 by 3 degrees to encompass the whole of the Veil Nebula. Thus, we can say that the full Moon would fit about 6 times across the apparent span of the Veil Nebula.
I have a lot of different telescopes and cameras! Some telescopes, such as the popular Schmidt Cassegrain design, are good for viewing the planets and small galaxies, but these typically have very small FOVs because they have long focal lengths to provide the high magnification which we need to see the belts on Jupiter, the craters on the Moon, or the rings of Saturn. Think of these telescopes as the telephoto lenses of the astronomer’s toolkit. Then there are the shorter focal length, smaller telescopes. These are the type (typically small refractors) that can give a wider view of the starry sky and they are ideal for delivering a larger FOV on to the camera’s sensor. However, only the smallest of these could cover the 3 by 3 degrees we require, and so I have resorted to the technique of imaging one half of the Veil Nebula on one night, followed by the other half on another night! I used an using an 85mm F/5.3 refractor. The two sets of images are ultimately processed and seamlessly joined together in a mosaic to show the Veil Nebula in one final image. Although this sounds complicated, there are advantages to this approach as the final image provides a much higher resolution of the target than could been obtained with a telescope that could fit the whole thing in in one go. The final image ends up with more pixels too.
The Veil Nebula is a Supernova remnant. The star that blew itself to pieces was 20 times more massive than the Sun and was just over 2,000 light years away. This cataclysmic event happened about 10,000 years ago. The remaining remnant structure is about 110 light years across and contains the beautiful glowing filaments that you can see in the image. The red colour is caused by ionised Hydrogen atoms, and the green from doubly ionised Oxygen atoms. The filter that I used to capture this image allows light of these two colours (wavelengths) to pass through, but cuts off everything else, including general light pollution and moonlight etc. Astronomers call this narrowband imaging.
Click on the image below to see a full-sized version.
Here, on the south coast of England, the nights get very short indeed for a couple of months around the Summer Solstice. In fact, there are several weeks where theoretical ‘astronomical twilight’ never ends and the Sun never drops below 18 degrees below the horizon. I normally abandon deep-sky imaging but, this year, I was testing out a new system and decided to have a go at a few easy and classic Summer deep-sky targets.
The main thing that helped my productivity during these short nights was a new dual-band narrowband filter from Optolong called the L-Extreme. These multi-band filters are becoming very popular with deep-sky imagers these days. The pass-band spectrum graph is shown below, and you can see that there are two peaks – one centred on H-Alpha and the other on OIII and both are 7nm wide.
I’ve been imaging with Ha, OIII and SII narrowband filters for many years, but so often in the past I have been unable to capture a full set of sub images due to poor weather or lack of time, and this filter brings the possibility of acquiring more finished images as these three testify. By the way, the SII band is not included with this filter but, so often, the SII signal is so weak it rarely adds much to an image. However, since I have this filter in my filter wheel (so that I can use a Luminance filter for RGB imaging) I still have the option of adding my SII filter into the mix if I so desire.
I should mention that these narrowband filters are generally used with one-shot colour cameras. The Ha signal ends up in the red channel and the OIII signal is often mixed between green and blue. My new system includes the amazing QHY268C one-shot colour cooled CMOS camera which is very sensitive and has 16-bit resolution.
I will add a separate article showing the new setup, but it includes the superb Takahashi FSQ-85EDX APO refractor working at f/5.4 riding on a Skywatcher AZ-EQ6 Pro mount. The field of view is 179′ x 120′ which is 3 x 2 degrees (1.72 arc-seconds per pixel).
All three images consist of just over 2 hours of exposures – that’s all the darkness I had on each night! I took 600 second exposures throughout and calibrated with dark, flat and flat-dark frames.
Please click on each image below to see the full size of the images (which are only 50% of the originals).
The first image is the North America Nebula in Cygnus (NGC7000)
The second is IC1396 in Cepheus which contains the Elephant Trunk Nebula near the middle.
Lastly, NGC6888, The Crescent Nebula in Cygnus which is sometime referred to a van Gogh’s Ear!
Hopefully, my next article will not be too long coming. Thanks for reading.
Here are three different versions of M16, The Eagle Nebula in the constellation of Serpens Cauda. Interestingly, the constellation of Serpens is unique in that it is the only one that is split into two distinct pieces, namely Serpens Caput (the head) and Serpens Cauda (the tail). All of these images have been recently taken using the amazing telescope that I co-share with Australian amateur Jason Jennings. This scope is hosted in the iTelescope.net ‘barn’ at the Siding Spring Observatory, Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. I’ll write another post about the scope soon, but it is an amazing 16″ f/3.5 astrograph.
This first version is a ‘traditional’ LRGB image, meaning it has been made by taking separate images using Clear (Luminance), Red, Green and Blue filters and then combining those to make a final colour image. This should be close to how the eye would perceive the colour because the R,G and B filters pass frequencies of light similar to the sensors in our tri-colour vision system. The clear filter is used as a luminance channel and is where most of the sharpened detail resides.
As with all the images, please click on them to see a full-sized version.
M16 LRGB Version
This next version is taken using three narrowband filters. These are H-Alpha (Ha), OIII and SII. The wavelength of these filters are commonly used by astronomers because there are a lot of emission nebulae that have excited atoms in them that emit light in these wavelengths (especially Ha which is nearly always the strongest). So, to produce an ‘RGB’ image from them requires that they are mapped to the Red, Green and Blue channels of the image. I have chosen to use the ‘Hubble Palette’ which maps the SII to Red, Ha to Green and OIII to Blue. Here is the result:
M16 Narrowband Version
You will notice that the star colours are not good in the narrowband version and this is a consequence of the filter mapping and also because of the relative strengths of the three channels. So, in the third image below, I have combined the stars from the RGB image with the nebulosity from the narrowband image. Here it is:
M16 – NB with RGB stars
I’m not sure which version I prefer!
Finally, a 4th image (I lied!) taken last year with a longer focal length instrument (12″ f/9 RCOS) which shows the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in more resolution. This was also taken using the Hubble Palette which is appropriate because the iconic pillars were made famous by those fabulous images from the Hubble telescope.
From time to time it becomes apparent that your image processing skills have improved to the point where you become convinced that it would be possible to reprocess old data and stun the world with the results!
I often find, however, that the improvements are minimal, and that is probably the case here, but I still find this target fascinating. Here is a re-processed image of M45 – The Pleiades, which is currently well placed in Northern Hemisphere skies. Jupiter is not too far away too.
I captured this data in September 2011 using a QHY-8 one-shot colour CCD camera (which I have since sold!). The telescope was my little 75mm Pentax APO refractor. I took 20 exposures each of 10 minutes and combined them to produce this.
Yesterday, I posted the monochrome H-Alpha image of M42, taken in full moon-light. To get the RGB colour data, I will have to wait for the Moon to go away, or will I?
In the image below, I took the RGB (Red, Green and Blue) data from a colour image of M42 I took last year with a one-shot colour CCD camera. The colour image was taken at a much smaller scale with a much smaller refracting telescope, and I had to scale it up in size to align, rotate and fit the new H-Alpha image which I used as the luminosity channel in this image. The colours look a bit washed out here, which happens if you just simply use Ha as luminance, but I think it does look pretty!
It just shows that the colour data does not have to have the full resolution (detail) of the luminance data. This is why astronomers often shoot the RGB data for their images with their cameras in ‘binned’ mode. If you bin by 2×2, it means that you have 4 pixels adding up to make one. The camera becomes twice as sensitive and you can expose for less time to get the same ‘depth’ of image. The downside is that the image has half the number of pixels across and down, so you pay by losing resolution. But we’ve just discovered that doesn’t matter too much!