My First Attempts at Astrophotography

So, I won a nice astronomical camera in a raffle at the recent AAS conference, and since there was a lunar eclipse last night, I wanted to try it out with my telescope to get pictures.

This didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I had several problems getting my telescope set up properly. A broken tripod I could work around. A bad connection to the controls? I could still get it pointed. But here’s the thing, up here in Ann Arbor, it was the coldest night of the year. By midnight, it was hovering around zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I was bundled up enough myself, but it was so cold that frost was forming on my computer screen in 20 minutes.

And the cold proved to be my downfall. It turns out, I can’t autofocus the camera unless I can point it at a star to resolve it as a point. But I couldn’t point it at a star and get it to stay put without turning on the electronic tracking. And it was so cold that the electronic tracking was malfunctioning. That meant I had to focus blind by taking a photo and adjusting the focus knob on the telescope itself.

This is the first photo I took. It’s about the best focus I could get doing it blind, and the resolution was smaller than I’d hoped. (And obviously, the field of view is smaller than the Moon.) This is a raw image, which means I haven’t done any processing to clean it up like you usually see in astronomical photos. I couldn’t stay out very long because of the cold, so I didn’t have time explore all of the camera’s options. I think there’s a higher-resolution mode available, but I’m not sure how to use it.

The bright white crater in the above image is Tycho, which is at the south end of the Moon’s face, and the dark area at the upper left is the largest of the Moon’s “seas,” Oceanus Procellarum (The Ocean of Storms).

Here is an area slightly north of the first photo showing Oceanus Procellarum with a lighter auto-adjusted brightness. (I told you they were raw images.) I took these two photos at the very beginning of the eclipse. If you look carefully, you will see a darkened region at the top of the Moon’s disk, which is where it’s starting to enter Earth’s outer shadow.

I took this image about an hour into the eclipse, when the Moon was halfway into Earth’s inner shadow, the umbra–the part that looks red when the Moon is fully covered. The orientation of the camera is different here, so the features you can see on the light part of the Moon are in the northeast: the Sea of Tranquility (where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed) and the Sea of Serenity.

Here’s a picture of the southern part of the eclipse boundary. On the light part of the Moon, you can just make out the Sea of Fertility and the Sea of Nectar.

Back to the northern part again, maybe a little bit better focus.

I wanted to get photos of totality, when the Moon is fully covered and turns blood red. However, here I ran into another problem. I live in an area with a lot of exterior lights, and with the Moon being so much dimmer then, the glare from the lights reflected inside the telescope was too much to see it clearly. Even looking with my eyes, the glare was so bad that when I first spotted the Moon, I thought it had gone behind a cloud, so it was pretty much hopeless.

So, my process needs some work. I’m going to see if I can come up with something better and in a better location when the weather warms up.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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