Sunday, December 18, 2011

Huntsville Panorama

The family and I went out last night to look at Christmas lights. If you're in the Huntsville, Texas area, I highly recommend visiting Bob and Sandra Moody's display on Spring Circle Loop. It is the best display in town, in my opinion. Visit their web site at for details on the display and directions to their house.

My older son likes seeing cities at night, so we finished up the outing with a visit to the top of the Sam Houston State University parking garage. Here is a panorama of the town from the north side of the garage:

Right-click on the image and open it in a new tab or window for best viewing.

I used a free program called Hugin to create the panorama. It matches up and aligns the individual images, "distorting" them as needed to make them fit together. The program worked fine until the last step, where it was supposed to stitch the modified images together. Fortunately, it wrote the images to disk, and I was able to put them together myself in Paint.NET.

Visible in this image, from left to right, are:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Messier 52 and the Bubble Nebula

Messier 52 is an open cluster located in Cassiopeia. It was discovered in 1774 by Charles Messier while he was observing a nearby comet. It is located in the lower-left of this image.

The Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635) is located to the upper-right of M52. The bubble is about 10 light-years across, and is being formed by a hot, young star whose stellar winds are pushing away the gas and dust of the nebula.

A little to the right of M52 is a sparse open cluster cataloged as Czernik 42.

A lot of the Bubble Nebula is not visible to my camera--most likely because the camera still has its factory-installed IR cut-off filter. Removing the filter is supposed to increase the camera's sensitivity in the lower-wavelengths of the visible spectrum.

Messier 52, Bubble Nebula, Czernik 42; ST80 on Vixen GP; 21x120

California or Bust, Again

I've been wanting to retry the California Nebula (NGC 1499) since my last attempt. The opportunity presented itself the other night. The sky was beautiful! But, about a half hour into imaging, clouds starting rolling in and spoiled the party. Maybe I can try again another night. In the meantime, here it is:

California Nebula (NGC 1499); ST80 on Vixen SP; 8x180

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Double Cluster Redo

I've been going back through my image archives and reprocessing some of the older images to see if I can improve them. Here is a reprocessed version of the image of the Double Cluster that I shot back in September 2009:

Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869); Epsilon-200; 9x180

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Another Coathanger Redo

This is a reprocessed version of the Coathanger Cluster that I posted back in September 2010. I reduced the size a bit to hide some of the image noise.

Coathanger Cluster; Epsilon-200; 13x180

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

North America Nebula Redo

This isn't exactly a redo of my original North America Nebula. I had been intending to try to remove the effects of chromatic aberration in the stars for some time, but found it a somewhat difficult task. Most of my attempts left unnatural looking holes in the nebula, so I settled on desaturating the purple fringes and colorizing them to more closely match the color of the nebula. This is fine for the stars that are surrounded by the nebula, but those that are surrounded by darker parts of the image now have red halos instead of purple ones. Oh, well. One of these days I might win the lottery and get a nice little apochromatic refractor.

NGC 7000, North America Nebula; ST80 on  Vixen GP; 9x180

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Texas has been experiencing its worst drought since the 1950s, so it is understandable that we get excited when a little rain comes our way. I get doubly excited because it gives me an opportunity to photograph lightning. A storm came through this evening, bringing some much needed rain and some Big Scary Lightning. I started off photographing from the back porch, but self-preservation kicked in after a few minutes and I moved inside and set up at a window. Here is the best shot of the evening:

The little smudges that dot the image are water drops falling from the roof. The odd device to the lower-right is a satellite dish.

I can not emphasize this enough: LIGHTNING IS DEADLY. If you can hear thunder then you are well within the danger zone for a lightning strike. I do not recommend that anyone attempt to photograph lightning; but, for those of you who have made up your minds that you are going to do it, here are some guidelines that I follow:

  • Set the camera to Manual mode.
  • Focus the camera on a distant object. I use autofocus if it is bright enough outside. Once focused, I turn off autofocus.
  • Lightning images are best made at night.
  • Pick an area of the sky that looks promising for lightning activity. This can be hit-or-miss, depending on the nature of the storm. Move the camera as the storm progresses to increase the chances of capturing lightning.
  • Use a steady tripod and place the camera in a location where it will not get wet or blown over.
  • Set the ISO to a low setting (I use ISO-100).
  • Take 5-second exposures (shorter if the sky is bright) to help bring out the surrounding features. Also, longer exposures mean that the camera will spend less time processing the image and more time imaging the sky. Remember, lightning is fast!
  • Use the lock on the remote control cable to take multiple exposures. 99.9% of the images will have nothing of interest in them, so expect to take a lot.
  • Work from a safe location! Outdoors and near windows are not safe locations. Set up, lock the remote control, and get to safety!

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Love-Hate Relationship

I have a love-hate relationship with the telescope mount that I use at the observatory. For reasons that I have yet to determine, it works very well sometimes and not so great other times. I will spend several hours trying to tweak the thing and the results will be mediocre, which is a shame considering that this is supposed to be a high-end mount.

Maybe it's me, but on the other hand I can set up my little Vixen SP mount with the ST80 and get very good results with a minimum of fuss. (One major difference, though, is that the ST80 has a much wider field of view, and so is a little more forgiving of tracking errors.)

Anyway, I finally got to spend some time working with the Epsilon-200 after a long hiatus. I battled the mount, which apparently thought it was on another planet, for a couple of hours and managed to squeeze in about two hours of imaging. All of my intended targets had either set or crossed into the light pollution of Huntsville (why didn't I use the light pollution filter???), so I picked the following items to image:

Messier 2, Epsilon-200 on NJP mount, 16x60 + 8x30
Messier 29, Epsilon-200 on NJP mount, 13x90
NGC 6992, the Eastern Veil; Epsilon-200 on NJP mount; 9x180
Addendum:  The right ascension motor had come loose on one side, resulting in the tracking errors that plagued me the night that I took the above images. The problem became obvious while slewing the scope during a star party--the dust cover that protects the gears began scraping one of the gears as the motor slipped further down. After reattaching the motor and balancing and aligning the scope, everything started working fine.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Server Farm

I was a Database Administrator (DBA) in my previous job. We were a highly specialized shop in most respects, which means that different individuals handled specific tasks. For example, as a DBA I was not allowed to set up virtual servers or allocate resources to existing servers, and I had limited authority to make configuration changes at the operating system level. As a result, I sometimes found it difficult to guarantee system integrity. This lead to a lot of personal stress, so as a stress-relief exercise I made light of a particular series of events that occurred during my last year of employment. I shared this story with my coworkers in bits and pieces as the events unfolded and they found it entertaining, so I thought I'd share it with the world at large.

I've included some additional commentary to help explain the circumstances a little better.

Mainframe had a database that was one of the primary sources of information used by my employer.  Directly accessing the mainframe for daily reports was impractical because of performance issues.  I used the DRDA gateway to copy the relevant data into the Prod database on a regular basis and ran the reports from there.

The conversation between me and the Network Person went something like this:

NP:  "Are you using Test?"
Me:  "No.  I am not doing any testing today.  Do you need to take it off-line?"
NP:  "Yes."

I interpreted this conversation to mean "We, the Network People, need to reboot Test because we are using it for some nefarious purpose of our own, such as World Domination."  It was a perfectly reasonable assumption since both the Network People and I used this particular server for a variety of testing purposes.  What the Network Person really meant was, "We, the Network People, are going to reformat Test's hard drive and turn this machine into a menial Zombie Slave."

Reports was brought on-line for a single user who did a lot of complex queries and reporting.  It was determined by our administration that this individual should have a separate database in which to work.  Reports was supposed to be simple:  one machine would have all of the necessary tools, including the database, running in an easy-to-use GUI operating system.

I never did find out why Reports and Mainframe couldn't get along.

Most of Dev was set up to parallel Prod, so it was a fairly easy operation to "graft" Dev to Prod. Still, it made me look like a Genius Miracle Worker to most of my peers. (Those who didn't think I was a Genius Miracle Worker probably didn't understand the setup, anyway.)

Starting at this point, Reports was only used for hosting the database. The reporting tools were installed on a different server.

There was a long period of time between the slide above and the slide below. We had to coast along like this for a while because other projects had to take precedence.

Certain batch processes on the mainframe would lock entire tables, causing Prod's jobs that read those tables to time out. The scheduling of the mainframe batch processes seemed to change unpredictably.

Well, that's the end as far as I'm concerned. My successor will need to pick up the standard and carry it forward into the battle now. I wish him or her all the best.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Antique Saturn

This rather poor image of Saturn was taken using a camera phone through the eyepiece of the Alvan Clark & Sons refractor at Sam Houston State University. The telescope was purchased in 1884 by the university (then known as Sam Houston Normal Institute) and sits on its original No. 5 mount. Mike Prokosch, the director of the SHSU Planetarium brought it out after a show one night to view the Moon and Saturn. The views were spectacular! Lunar features were crisp, with high contrast, and I could make out cloud bands on Saturn and the gap between the rings and planet quite easily.

A picture of Mike standing next to the telescope is located on Mike's web site.

Saturn; 1884 4.5" Clark refractor on No. 5 mount; Kyocera Loft camera through 0.6" eyepiece

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reprocessed Images and Something New

The recent lousy weather (for astronomy) has kept me indoors for some time now, and when that happens, I sometimes dig into the archives to see what I can reprocess.

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula, was the first thing I imaged with the Epsilon-200. For some reason, I recorded all of the subs in JPEG format instead of CR2 (RAW). Regardless, I was very happy with the original image at the time. I've learned a few tricks for reducing noise, though, so I thought I'd take another stab at it:

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula
For comparison, see my previous post of Messier 27.

I've never been very happy with my image of Messier 17, the Swan Nebula. Like my M27, I only collected JPEG images. The images were very noisy, which made it difficult to bring out the fainter details of the nebula without swamping the rest of the image in colored streaks. A program like Neat Image can be your friend in those circumstances.  Here is a redo of M17:

Messier 17, the Swan Nebula
And, finally, here is a "new" image of Messier 8, the Lagoon Nebula, that I imaged some time ago. I think this is the first time that I've posted it in a public forum:

Messier 8, the Lagoon Nebula; Epsilon-200 on NJP; 17x120

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Supernova 2011dh

On May 31, 2011, amateur astronomer Amédée Riou of France discovered a supernova in Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. It was independently discovered by other astronomers shortly afterward, and is currently being observed by professional and amateur astronomers world-wide.

Below is an image that I took of M51 on June 8, 2011. A first-quarter moon was up and the sky was hazy, so the detail isn't that great. The supernova, now designated SN 2011dh, is as bright as many of the foreground stars in this image. Considering that M51 is 23 million light years away, that's pretty bright!

SN 2011dh in M51; ST80 on Vixen SP; 14x180
For comparison, here is a shot of M51 that I took with the Epsilon-200 on April 24, 2010, reduced and rotated to approximately the same size and orientation as the image above.

Below is the full-size version of the Epsilon-200 image. The moon was about 85% full that night, but the sky was much clearer than the other night.

Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy; Epsilon-200 on NJP; 25x120
SN 2011dh is expected to remain visible for the next few months. It has been determined to be a Type II supernova, which means that it was caused by giant star that collapsed in upon itself. The debris from this star will be scattered into interstellar space and may end up becoming the raw material for new stars and planets. The core of the star likely collapsed into either a neutron star or a black hole.

SN 2011dh is the third supernova observed in M51 in the past 17 years, which is a remarkably high frequency considering that our own galaxy averages only one supernova every 50 years!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Here are some shots of lightning taken from my back porch on May 25, 2011.