Space – The Final Frontier

One of my goals as a retired senior citizen is to indulge all of the interests I’ve developed over the years, now that I have the time and frankly also the money to do so.

I’ve had a long standing love affair with all things in space and space-related. By that, I mean all things off our own planet. From the early days of the Gemini and Apollo programs in the US, I’ve been gripped by a fascination around what and who could be out there. And of course, Star Trek and its offshoots only served to romanticize the idea that strange, wonderful adventures and discoveries could lie beyond our atmosphere.

I had some good fortune when younger to connect with people that worked on these challenges, at least from the point of view of humans living in space. But I’ve come to realize that humans in space is more of a challenge than we know how to solve right now, and I will never live to see permanent residence of any human anywhere other than on the Earth. But there are other ways to explore beyond our tiny speck of a planet, and I have settled on astrophotography as that method for me.

About a year ago, a group of people in my local photography club got together to explore the topic of astrophotography and its techniques. We got a good way into the subject, but for the most part, the discussion was around how to show a starlit night sky as a backdrop against something terrestrial. While fun, that wasn’t exactly what I was interested in. I was interested in the world of deep sky objects. These are the structures that make up our universe, everything from gaseous nebulae to stellar nurseries to supernovae to black holes. There are galaxies, constellations and other huge structures, most of which we cannot see with the naked eye. But our telescopes can.

I began to follow a series of deep sky astrophotographers on YouTube, the most famous Canadian of which is Trevor Jones, of AstroBackyard. His easy to follow explanations of his own journey reeled me in, and in September of 2022, I decided to invest in a full telescope setup and to learn how to use it.

By the way, it turns out that this hobby doesn’t have many women in it. It is highly technical and very detail-oriented, which appear to be something that traditionally women have shied away from. I am delighted to see though that women are making themselves known in the hobby now. One very impressive young lady is a teenager from Scotland, Helena Cochrane.

Don’t know about you, but diving head first into something totally new can be extremely intimidating, particularly if the activity has some complexity and precision associated with it. My geeky nature seeks that out naturally, but this was a whole new level of geeky. And I’ve discovered that there is no one source of authority to turn to for answers to questions – so online research has become part of my day to day activities too. I eagerly search out solutions for every question or problem I run into. That’s part of the fun.

But first, I had to learn the language and understand each piece of equipment:

  • Deep sky objects (DSO)
  • Apochromatic quintuplet astrograph refractor, Petzval design – try saying that 10 times fast!
  • Backfocus and backlash
  • Emission nebulae
  • Reflection nebulae
  • One shot colour camera with cooling
  • Autofocus run
  • Narrowband filters
  • ALT AZ mount vs. German equatorial mount
  • Autoguiding, guide scope and calibration
  • Image stacking and stretching
  • Long duration and short duration subs

And on and on and on.

I’ve spent the past 5 months learning all the language, all the theory and all of the recommended standards for beginners like me. I’ve spent the last 5 months acquiring the gear, connecting the gear, testing the gear and correcting for the errors in my use of the gear.

The hobby of DSO imaging has come such a long way in the past ten years, with the explosion of interest from amateurs like me. Like all other areas of technology, the improvements have made it much more convenient and much less physically and mentally demanding to participate in this hobby. I can literally set up and control my entire telescope rig from my phone. I can literally set up on my driveway in a light polluted area near Toronto, Canada and still be confident that I can get wonderful images of DSO’s. That is, of course, when it’s not cloudy outside. But you can image even through some light, hazy clouds. Amazing.

To illustrate how hard that really is, imagine the head of a pin, held a mile away, giving off only dimly reflected light that you cannot see with the naked eye. With the latest technology, not only can you find it easily, but you can image it in complete focus and, with subsequent stacking, sometimes even as you capture the images, reveal the most amazing associated colours and detail. And all of this from a moving sphere called the Earth, while I am surrounded by interference from other light sources in the sky and on the ground, with vibration from wind and traffic and other human activity on the ground, atmospheric distortions and atmospheric pollutants. Oh, and by the way, it’s not just a mile away. In reality, we are imaging objects that are billions and billions of miles away. This technology is incredible!

I should mention as well that one of the most used and well respected pieces of software that was recently developed to manage my astronomy equipment is something I could not resist. It’s called “NINA” for Nighttime Imaging ‘N Astronomy. It allows me to control all aspects of my imaging session from my laptop. It is easy to use and has been collaboratively developed by some very smart people. And it’s FREE! I’m convinced now that fate brought me to this hobby.

I also use apps and devices that allow me to control my full rig from my phone and be even more portable. Another reason why the hobby has taken off in popularity recently.

But these systems (and my use of them) aren’t perfect, and it has taken me 5 months to get to a point where I can set up properly, take an image and not have it be a blurry, out of focus mess. When the James Webb Space Telescope was launched by NASA in December of 2021, we were told that it would take at least 6 months to position it correctly, align the mirrors, cool the equipment and calibrate the cameras. And that was all done remotely from a million miles away. Now I know why it took that long.

Over the coming months (if these persistent, ridiculous clouds ever clear again!), I will be capturing images from many of the DSO’s recommended for beginners, including:

  • Andromeda Galaxy – M31
  • Orion Nebula – M42
  • Pleiades Cluster (Three Sisters) – M45
  • Horsehead and Flame Nebula – also in Orion

Even their names inspire awe! Capturing them isn’t the same as pointing a camera and “click”, you are done. Proper DSO object capture requires hours and hours of exposure time for each object, stacking the resulting images and then processing to reveal light, contrast and colour. That will also be part of the learning curve – a really really steep learning curve. I can hardly wait!

But for the time being, let me leave you with what is called the “first light” image from my rig. Astrophotographers often celebrate the very first image taken from their setups after they assemble and tune it. This is a 5 minute exposure of the Andromeda Galaxy, using a light pollution filter. It has some very basic processing to reveal contrast and colour. I even threw in a few sparkles on the stars! I am proud of this first result, BUT…

Compare that to a recent image posted by some experienced astrophotographers who collaborated on a capture of the Andromeda Galaxy and its surrounding super super faint gas clouds. This involved 111 hours of exposure, stacked and processed to reveal what you see below. In fact, the surrounding “nebulosity” (another new word – a nicer word than gas clouds) is a brand new discovery, never seen or suspected before. It is called the Oxygen Arc. There is so much we do not yet know…

Oh, please clear up soon skies. I’ve also invested in heated clothing to combat the hypothermia that can set in on a cold night outside. So I am ready. To infinity and beyond!!!

8 thoughts on “Space – The Final Frontier

  1. Outstanding article Nina very interesting. Your first photo was amazing! You yourself are amazing and terrifically talented.!. I am profoundly in awe of what you are doing and wish you happy travels to go were no woman has gone before.!


  2. It’s amazing how some can look up at the night sky and never ever get beyond that simplistic…”look at that sky” and never think about that little but big step of looking into and beyond our own Galaxy.
    Looking forward to seeing some awesome captures from you and that new gear.


  3. Wow! I can see you and “NINA” having a long happy, and maybe sometimes frustrating relationship. I look forward to hearing more and seeing more of your images to come! You are my geek hero.


    1. Thanks, Donna. Spent last night on the driveway for about 4 hours. It was cold but it was wonderful. And sadly, yes, there remain unexpected problems to solve. Another attempt tonight…


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