What’s Your Unobtanium?

What object in the sky always bites you in the ass when you try to image it? Endless cloudy nights, dew problems, focus issues, equipment failures… A lot of us have one object that continues to elude us year after year. We look on Astrobin or Instagram, see everyone’s beautiful images of this object and want to tackle it ourselves, but every time out the Gremlins start to work their way into our imaging session. I wouldn’t rush to say that everyone has some object they just can’t seem to capture, despite good planning and preparation, but I’m sure there are a lot of us out there with one object that just pisses us off, night after night and year after year.

For me, the object I’ve struggled with for 3 years now is the biggest and one of the brightest things in the sky, M31. The Andromeda galaxy isn’t the easiest thing to image, due to its bright core, and dim yet detailed outer bands. I know the techniques of imaging and processing, having successfully blended the bright core of M42 (The Orion Nebula) with the faint outer clouds of dust and hydrogen gas. The entire galaxy does just barely fit into the field of view of my current setup, so I do have some dark sky to help with balance. And I’m able to capture M31 from my driveway for the entire night from Late August through September. All that good stuff, and I just can’t seem to get a decent image.

Our closest galactic neighbor was the first object I attempted to image when I started taking astronomy and astrophotography seriously in August of 2017. I even had an opportunity that first September to image from Bortle 3 skies, but as anyone in astrophotgraphy knows, three weeks after starting to image you still have no idea what’s going on. I scraped together one-and-a-half hours of kind of focused data.

M31 – Andromeda 2017 – 1.5hrs

In 2018, dew crept in that I couldn’t see until I tried processing the data – four hours of integration down the tube. Life and weather got in the way and I didn’t make it back to try again. At the time I also didn’t understand that a CLS filter is no good for the broadband specturm given off by galaxies.

M31 – Andromeda 2018 – 2.75hrs

My plan of attack for M31 in 2019: 7+ hours of data – 4-5 hours with an Optolong L-Pro filter to capture the broadband aspects of the Galaxy, and 2-3 hours using the Hutech IDAS NB1 filter to enhance contrast and the nebulosity hiding in the dust lanes.

For my first run in 2019, I managed 5 hours of data on M31 using the L-Pro filter, with only a little over 2 hours being usable. Big temperature swings caused focus issues that weren’t immediately noticeable. For two weeks, skies that were forecast to be incredibly clear turned into low thick clouds that radar couldn’t see, thanks to winds out of the Northeast traveling over the cloud machine that is Lake Michigan. The persistent northeast winds came all the way to the Midwest from Hurricane Dorian.

M31 – Andromeda – 2019 – 2.5hrs

I was determined in 2019 to produce an image of M31 I was happy with. I wasn’t able to image for weeks after my initial run. Another string of hot and humid weather persisted through mid September. The kids went back to school and their activities kept me on the run from 6AM-9PM most nights. Three weeks later, under a clear sky, my camera decided it didn’t want to talk to the computer.

While waiting for clear skies, I ordered and received a new telescope and motorized focuser. I made it out one more night with the old setup and this is where we’ll keep it for 2019. Is it better than last year? Yes. Is it what I was hoping for? Nope.

M31 – Andromeda – 2019 6hrs – Blended from L-Pro and NB1 filters

I have a lot of targets to catch up on, and my old friend Orion will be rising high late at night. I’ll spend most of the Winter in and around the Orion and Monoceros constellations after I get through a few early fall milky way objects. Andromeda will be back in a prime position for me next year, and perhaps I’ll get a bit closer still, or maybe even get the image I’ve been hunting for since the day I first connected a camera to a telescope.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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