Posted: October 29th, 2011
Clouds of Perseus is a collaborative project between Bob Caton, Eric Zbinden, Al Howard and myself. This article describes how this project came to be, from beginning to end.
Part I mainly talks about the planning and data acquisition.
Part II will talk about the post-processing of the data into the final image.
Part III will talk about the making and testing of the light box.
Early in the summer of 2011, Bob Caton approached Eric and I and told us this idea he had to build a huge lightbox to display at the following AIC (Advanced Imaging Conference), displaying some astrophoto. Of course, the idea was to capture the image by ourselves.
Eric and I agreed to work on capturing the data (Al would join later). Of course, we also had to decide what to photograph. Originally Bob had the idea to do a large mosaic in the Cygnus area. I hesitated alleging that the Cygnus area had been photographed plenty of times, and although it would certainly look amazing in the lightbox, we should try to go for something less "ordinary".
I suggested something in the region of Perseus and Taurus that would include the California nebula, or the Pleiades, or both. This suggestion came from knowing well this area is crowded with interstellar dust. Eric immediately agreed and so did Bob.
Timing is everything
We had one problem, and not a small one. In order to have the light box ready for the AIC, we only had until September's New Moon period to finish capturing the data, as the printing of the negative had to be done by mid-October.
It takes a quick look at any planetarium software to see that this area of the sky is impossible to photograph early in the summer, and if we were to use the months of August and September, we would have to wait until at least 1-2am in August to start imaging, and not much earlier than that in September. This limited our imaging time considerably, to the point the idea was almost rejected thinking that we might just not have enough imaging time.
It is worth mentioning at this point that neither Al, Eric or I have permanent or remote observatories, and all the data would have to be captured "in the field", that is, driving to dark sites every night we had to capture the data. Also, because we wanted to go deep, moderately dark skies were not sufficient - more on that later.
Because the light box was going to have very specific dimensions, we had to define our mosaic according to the proportions of the light box. Although the idea of an image including the California nebula and M45 was very appealing (I would know, as I captured this area back in 2009), this constraint with the proportions forced us to choose one or the other, and then try to define a field of view that would "make sense". We settled for the California nebula, and defined the FOV towards IC 348 and NGC 1333. It took a few tries... We first agreed we didn't want NGC 1499 too much to the left of the image, and with that in mind, Bob presented a framing very well balanced, I made a small adjustment, and we agreed to go with it. Bob punched in the coordinates so we all would get the very same numbers, and we finally were in agreement. Although Eric and Al were going to use a FLI PL 16803 camera, we agreed to define the mosaic using the FOV of the 11000 CCD - basically, using the smaller FOV that was going to be used.
We agreed that Bob would capture H-alpha data from his observatory in Modesto, for the area of the California nebula, and then, Eric, Al and I would go for the LRGB data. I pointed out that the best way would be if each of us were assigned certain panes, and then did the complete LRGB for those panes - as opposed to, say, have Eric capture the red data, Al the green and me the blue.
As the New Moon period for August was approaching, and since nobody else was "making the decision", I quickly assigned panes this way:
Bob: Panes 2 and 7, H-Alpha only
Eric: Panes 5, 9, 10 (LRGB)
Al: Panes 3, 4, 8 (LRGB)
Rogelio: Panes 1, 2, 7 (LRGB)
This selection wasn't completely random. Eric and Al's areas were for the most part, adjacent, which made sense since they were going to use the same type of camera. And the area of the California nebula was assigned to the STL 11000 (me), since it is a high signal area compared to the more dusty areas. Yes, pane 1 (also assigned to me) only contains extremely faint dust, but in order to meet the other conditions, it was either pane 1 or 6 for me.
If you notice, yes, pane 6 is missing in the list above. With three panes per person (fair and square), what I suggested was that whomever finished his three panes first, would go for pane #6. By the way, ultimately it would be Eric the one who captured pane number 6.
We also agreed on capturing a minimum of 4 hours of luminance per pane, as well as 2 hours per color channel, all bin 1x1 of course, and with 15 minutes subs.
When doing the numbers, counting the nights, considering the target wasn't well positioned in the sky until late at night, etc. we knew that the weather had to cooperate 100% every single "New Moon night" we could go out to image, or we would just not make it. Stressful? Just a bit :-)
Capturing the data
Al, Eric and I started collecting data on August 27th, 2011, at the DARC Observatory, while Bob also started capturing H-Alpha data at his home-based observatory in Modesto.
Eric and Al used a very similar setup, with AP900 mounts, Takahashi FSQ106 scopes and the FLI Proline 16803 camera. I used a Takahashi EM400, another Takahashi FSQ106 scope, and the SBIG STL11000 camera. Bob also used a SBIG STL11000 camera, and yet another Takahashi FSQ106 telescope, all on a Paramount ME mount. The fact we all were using the same type of scope and that all cameras had the same pixel size, made everything a bit easier, as no resampling would be needed during mosaic assembly or post-processing.
A few words about the DARC Observatory. It is actually property of Bob, sitting in the blue zone (Bortle scale), and it's about 120 miles away from where Eric and I live, and about 110 miles from Al's home.
This means that every time we would go to DARC to capture data, we would have to drive 120 miles to the site, usually fighting the evening rush hour traffic, and then 120 miles back, in the wee hours of the night - most of the times fighting the morning rush hour traffic! That's not just 240 miles for every single single session, but 240 miles that includes dealing with rather heavy traffic conditions for about half of the trip. An of course, taking everything out of the car and setting everything up at the beginning of the session, and tearing down and packing it back to the car at the end, every... single... night.
Here's an image of the three scopes, set up in the open dome at DARC, capturing data for the project:
Left to right: Eric's, Al's and my scope. The distortion you see in the image is due to a 10mm lens being used to take this photo. If you pay attention you might even see Eric's "ghost" sitting at his table :-)
I believe Eric imaged almost 14 days in a row (!!!). I know I did 8 days in a period of 14 days, and although I don't remember Al's schedule, it was just a tad shorter than mine. Some simple math then tells us that if you were to add the miles driven by Eric, Al and I during these14 days of New Moon period to the DARC Observatory, we'd be talking about approximately 7,000 miles and over 110 hours at the wheel. I've lost track of the time spent at the site, but the numbers are probably just as crazy. The fun part? We were not even nearly done, and another Herculean... I mean Perseulean effort coming up for the next New Moon.
Besides everything I've mentioned, driving 2 hours to a dark site during weekdays is also not easy business, as we all have to, well, WORK the next day, so although neither of us were using automated software to program our sessions, whenever we had a chance, we would set up a cot inside the observatory and try to catch a few zzz's... just not too many, and certainly, never more than a few in a row... here's my cot waiting for me:
By the way, don't be fooled :-) Although the image is all bright and the room looks nice and lively, during our imaging sessions we keep the building with minimum red lights only, so the atmosphere in the room is always rather gloomy when we're there doing our thing. Don't get me wrong, I love DARC, I just don't want you to get the impression that during our imaging sessions we enjoy "normal" lighting and activities :-)
The new moon during late August and early September wasn't nearly enough to complete the mosaic. We needed great weather during the next New Moon, and so we waited patiently for it. And when it came, although the forecast for the first few days wasn't so great, Mother Nature gave us a break, just long enough.
This time around, Al and Eric continued going to DARC, but I actually headed to the Central Nevada Star Party (CNSP), seeking some of the darkest skies in the country. A rather moody weather didn't give me those greatest skies the CNSP is famous for, but I was able to finish my part under fairly good skies after all - just not nearly as dark as the site for the CNSP could get. Al and Eric also managed to finish their part, not without some sacrifice as in "I wish I were done, I could use some rest, but I need to go again tomorrow" perhaps a couple of times.
Take away one night and we would have not been able to finish. It was THAT close!
But the weather cooperated and gave us all the nights we needed, and finally, after another intense New Moon period, we were ... done!!
Of course, I had this little incident I wrote about the other day, but the outcome from that night was good, and so we finally had all the data we wanted.
With all the data, what was left for us to do was to calibrate our subs, generate our own master L, R, G and B - and H-Alpha for Bob - and share the masters with the team.
There was not one particular person assigned to do the processing. The idea was basically to share the data and whomever wanted to have a go, just do it. In the end, only Eric and I decided to go for it, and he ended up having to concede the work to me, as he got extremely busy at work and with not enough time to do his processing on time. In the next part of this article I will talk about how I processed the data, from mosaic construction to final presentation, and everything in between.
Posted: October 23rd, 2011
Click here for a larger version
This image is a collaborative project between Bob Caton
, Eric Zbinden
, Al Howard
and myself. A 2x5 mosaic of sorts. Four FSQ106 scopes, two SBIG STL11k and two FLI Proline 16803... Some insanity and a lot of coffee (for me at least, the others I think only drink Red Bull :-).
128 hours of data. Many more hours accumulated in driving to darksites - mainly to the DARC Observatory and the Central Nevada Star Sarty - and over 7,500 miles driven, just by Al, Eric and myself.
I did the post-processing for this version, and it probably took me over 12 hours to put everything together up until the final version.
There was a "deadline" for this image, so we had to workon this one around the clock to the point at times it didn't even feel this was a hobby but a job, but still, now I think it was well worth it. Of course, the image is not perfect, but what is?
Colors are stronger than what I'd usually process them but there's a reason for that: the image will be printed on a 14 feet wide duratran-like transparency for a lightbox display at some upcoming event, so I prepped it for that by pushing saturation more than whatI usually do, and then figured I'd let it stay that way for regular"web" presentation since it was looking cool enough that way.
I must say I've enjoyed very much to work on this collaborative project, and I hope there'll be more to come!
This image was selected as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day on October 21, 2011
Get a poster, t-shirt, mug, mousepad... with this image!
[Hide image details
PHOTOExposure: Each pane:
L: 12 x 15', RGB: 12x15' each
Two Ha panes: 12 x 20' each
Total: 128 hours
Focal: 510mm, f/5
EQUIPMENTImaging Scopes: All FSQ 106 EDX
Cameras: SBIG STL11k and FLI Proline 16803
Mounts: Takahashi EM-400, AP900, Paramount ME
SITE & CONDITIONSDARC Observatory, Central Nevada Star Party
Processing: PixInsight & Photoshop
Posted: October 6th, 2011
I don't know if this is "extreme"... To some, this story may just sound nuts. Others, I think they understand perfectly what I'm talking about and have their share of stories even much more extreme than this one... Yeah.. I think sometimes I've gone to extremes way beyond than what I'm about to relate, but the title seemed catchy enough, and so it'll stay :-)
Well, it's no secret anymore that a few colleagues (Bob Caton, Al Howard, Eric Zbinden and myself) have invested over 125 hours of imaging (and probably even more of driving combined) in producing a macro-mosaic that will be displayed at this year's Advanced Imaging Conference 2011.
Bob Caton standing in front of the huge light box
Despite we haven't started to process the data just yet, what has been done so far is quite a feat. Still, two days ago I realized that the green data for one of the frames assigned to me was just rubbish (I'll spare the details), so here I am sitting, Thursday October 6th, loading up my car, because tonight, with a big bright Moon that sets at 3am, I have the very last chance to head up to a dark location and capture the minimum 2 hours of green data that I need - from 3am to 5am - otherwise the project will not see the light in time for AIC.
Yes, I work tomorrow. And yes, I'm tired and sure enough, ready to go to bed... otherwise... And although the forecast is for clear skies, temperatures in the mid 30s are expected (hey, those of you up north, this is California and it's only early October... ok? ;-), and extreme high humidity. I would never go out to capture data for a 3-5am session only, but if I don't do it, all the hours already invested would have been worthless, meaning the image will never make it on time for the AIC event.
Where to go? I could go Montebello, an easy 30 minutes drive from home, but the skies really have little to do with the skies we all have taken the data. Sure, it's "just" color data, but still. That would also mean breaking the Montebello OSP rules, which dictate that we can be there for astronomy up until 2am and no later than that!
I could go Henry Coe... This target will be up at the zenith between 3-5am and Coe's skies would likely be sufficient for green data, but let's face it, Coe can feel spooky at times when you're up there all alone (or in the company of mountain lions), and the of arriving at Coe around 2am, under near freezing temps and over 95% humidity, just is NOT my idea of having fun. Or I could go to the DARC Observatory, a rather safe and not spooky at all site, but the 2 hours drive that requires to get there - or better said, to get back home - would conflict with my schedule: I would get out of there not earlier than 5:30am, meaning getting at home - after fighting morning rush hour traffic - around 7:30 or later, and my kids would be late for school...
So the choice is between Spooky Coe or Bright Sky Montebello (and risk my access to the site if caught there after 2am). Since I don't want to break any rules that would compromise my access - or anyone else's - to Montebello, I guess the choice is clear, and in about 2 hours I'll leave for Henry Coe State Park, and deal with the spookiness, the cold and the humidity all night long pretty much until sunrise. That of course, assuming my access to the overflow parking lot is not stopped by a gate I cannot (legally) unlock, as I haven't been there in months!
Now, I mentioned earlier that having to leave at midnight to a far dark location and fight with the cold, humidity, and yeah, spookiness, is anything but fun, but here's the thing... Despite it would be very very nice to simply hit a few buttons from home and capture the data remotely while I just go to sleep, as many people do nowadays, nomadic imaging is not only about the data, the processing or the presentation, but also about the adventure and a million other things. And despite the difficulties, the inconveniences, the lack of sleep, the expense (gas is not cheap!) and everything else that comes with it... At least today, in the end, it makes it all much more worthy, at least to me, and I wouldn't change that for the world.
And trust me when I tell you that Eric and Al also had their share of
issues, such as driving 2 hours to DARC and then being able to capture
data for barely one hour due to clouds, then drive 2 hours back home
late at night, tired and all...
Maybe to some people - not everyone! - astrophotography does taste
better when you actually have to sweat it, I don't know... I still
dream about a remote observatory, don't get me wrong. But that won't
stop me from taking trips to dark sites. The best image cannot compare to being under the stars.
And in the end, if everything goes according to plan, I'll get that green data and on November 4th, there'll be a giant lightbox at the AIC for everyone to, hopefully, enjoy.
Well, everyone but myself, as, things being what they are, and despite I haven't missed one AIC ever since I'm into this hobby, this year my "astro budget" has severely reached its limit and I cannot afford the registration fee for this year's AIC. Either way, if you go AIC this year, I hope you enjoy the exhibit and maybe remember that getting all the data wasn't all that easy :-) ...