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Astrophotography: Markarian’s Chain in Virgo Cluster

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Markarian’s Chain is an impressive photography subject for those with a camera and telescope to capture it.  This string of 7 distinct galaxies is a member of the Virgo Cluster and epitomizes the types of astrophotography subjects available during galaxy season.

On Friday night (Good Friday), I was spoiled with a second consecutive clear night sky. The moon would rise above the horizon by 11:30 pm, so I had a few hours of moonless imaging time to squeeze in.

Markarian’s Chain is a prominent feature within the impressive Virgo Cluster of galaxies.  M87 is the brightest member of the group, a very large elliptical galaxy. 

My final image of Markarian’s Chain included 2 hours and 10 minutes of total integrated exposure time.  To see a larger version of the image with complete photography details, continue down this post.

For a run-down of the processing steps used, have a look at my tutorial on deep-sky image processing in photoshop.

Astrophotography during a Waning Gibbous Moon

With a nearly full moon traveling across the ecliptic, deep-sky astrophotography becomes a lot more challenging.  Couple this with my lack of any filters for the ASI071, and you’ve got a difficult imaging session ahead.

basic astrophotography setup

View my updated list of equipment for deep-sky imaging

Luckily, the Virgo Cluster of galaxies including Markarian’s chain showcases many interesting, yet mostly featureless objects.  A forgiving target for imaging conditions such as this.

Usually, when the moon is out, I’ll capture H-Alpha data using my Canon T3i and Astronomik 12 Ha filter.  However, my previous attempts at capturing Ha on a small galaxy (The Pinwheel Galaxy) proved to be of limited value.

I think I’ll save the Ha capturing for some of the Nebulae that will be gracing our night sky in the coming months.  For now, I’ll focus on collecting RGB frames using the OSC (One shot color) ASI071 camera when moonlight is limited.

I can only hope that the clear skies continue as we near closer to the weeks on either side of the new moon.

Using the CMOS sensor Cooled camera

The ZWO ASI071MC-Cool remains in my procession for the time being, and I couldn’t be happier.  Spending time with this camera has allowed me to further familiarize myself with the CCD imaging process and software such as Sequence Generator Pro.

CCD Camera for astrophotography

If you are transitioning from a DSLR camera, I think you’ll find that the AS071 is a big improvement.  I’ve been cooling the camera to -40 degrees when shooting targets in my backyard, and the images produced are virtually noise-free.

The camera has some pretty neat features including a built-in anti-dew heater window heater, that can be turned on and off.  I haven’t had to use the feature yet, but I have a feeling it will come in handy during the summer months.

Markarian’s Chain: String of Galaxies in the Virgo Cluster

This area is considered to be the core of the Virgo Supercluster, and is a truly spectacular sight.

The Virgo cluster contains some serious astronomy eye-candy.  The sheer number of galaxies in this area of the sky is staggering.  If you are looking for a deep-sky view at the Universe, you’ve found it.

Markarian’ Chain – April 14-15, 2017

Markarian's Chain in Virgo Cluster

Markarian’s Chain – Wide Field ViIew through the ES ED102

Photo Details:

Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 10 Minutes
Image Frames: 26 x 300″
Support Files: 15 Darks, 15 Flats

Camera: ASI071MC-Cool (Color)
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan
Guide Scope: Starwave 50mm
Guide Camera: Altair Astro GPCAM2 AR0130

Image Aquisition in Sequence Generator Pro
Registering and Stacking in DeepSkyStacker
Post Processing in Adobe Photoshop CC

The Virgo Cluster is the closest cluster of galaxies to our own Milky Way. Markarian’s Chain appears to form an arc pattern, with 7 or more galaxies making up the formation.

M84, M86, and M87 are the largest galaxies of the group, cataloged by Charles Messier.  The galaxies may appear small, but each of them contains more than 400 billion stars or more.

Go ahead and explore this amazing area in detail.  Click here for a large version of the image.

Where is the Virgo Cluster?

Below you will find a wide-field image of the constellation Virgo and the surrounding area.  Jupiter is seen at the bottom right and Arcturus on the left.

Star Chart - Virgo Constellation

Markarian’s Chain is not observable visually but will become evident in short exposures at the right focal length.  Using the 2-second refresh rate on SharpCap, I am able to spot the 3 brightest galaxies in Markarian’s Chain.

I am quite proud of my framing on this one.  My goal was to center Markarian’s chain in the field of view while capturing as many additional distant galaxies as possible.

Image Processing Tips

As I mentioned, I could really benefit by using filters with the ASI071 while imaging in my light-polluted backyard.  Specifically, a UV IR Cut filter would reduce star bloat, and correct much of the color balance issues I had to tackle in post-processing.

Thankfully, I received some useful information about stacking images with this camera’s color profile and Bayer pattern in DeepSkyStacker.  Because of the RGGB pattern used in the sensor of the camera, the default stacks were coming out with an odd color cast (mostly green).

I corrected this by a large degree by using the following parameters for RAW/FITS files in DeepSkyStacker.

DeepSkyStacker settings for ASI071

Adjusting DSS for better color balance using the RGGB Bayer pattern

As you can see, I bumped up the red and blue scales to create a more balanced final image.

Once this was corrected, my standard deep-sky processing techniques were effective in boosting contrast, removing gradients, and reducing star size.  The curves adjustment applied was much more subtle than it would be on a nebula.

Because of the visual characteristics of the galaxies in Markarian’s chain, you do not need an aggressive stretch to bring the objects forward.  I could have brought the “glow” from these galaxies out further, but not without degrading the quality of the background sky.

Much more exposure time would be required for the best of both worlds.

For the Love of Astrophotography

Telescope setup for deep-sky photography

I forgot how nice it was to spend the majority of the night outdoors while the camera was running, rather than monitoring TeamViewer in the house!  The milder nights have been hovering around 1 or 2 degrees, which is just enough to keep my hands from freezing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t stress enough the importance I give to the overall experience.  I believe that it is easy to get sucked into the fine details of your equipment and obsessing over the automation of your gear.  For me, I never want to lose the feeling I get when I look up on a clear April night.

Where’s your DSLR?

In case you are wondering, I’ve still got my hands on the ASI071MC-Cool from Ontario Telescope and Accessories.  They have graciously given me an extended period to use this imaging camera.  For now, my Canon DSLR remains stored in the garage.

Until next time, clear skies.

 

Related Posts:

Deep-Sky Astrophotography During a Full Moon

8 Galaxy Season Targets for your Camera and Telescope

CCD vs. DSLR Astrophotography – A New Learning Curve

Resources:

The Constellation Virgo – EarthSky

The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies – APOD

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The Leo Triplet of Galaxies

|Galaxies|2 Comments

The Leo Triplet is an interesting group of 3 galaxies that are often observed and photographed within a single field of view. The Leo Triplet includes spiral galaxies M65, M66, and NGC 3628. This group of galaxies is also known as the M66 group, and is found in the constellation Leo. 

Each one of the galaxies is tilted at a different angle, making them all appear quite different from each other from our vantage point on Earth. NGC 3628 (The Hamburger Galaxy) is seen edge-on, with dark dust lanes that obscure the bright core of the galaxy. M65 and M66 are on angles that show off their beautiful spiral structure.

The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet 

My testing of the ASI071MC-Cool Astrophotography Camera continues. This time, on the Leo Triplet of Galaxies. This dedicated astronomy camera (one-shot color CMOS sensor) has taken the place of my Canon T3i DSLR for now.  After some early struggles, I have enjoyed learning the new photography techniques involved with cooled CMOS camera imaging.

By now, many of you have transitioned from deep sky targets that were available during the Winter months into the springtime galaxies (myself included).  Even though each night kicks off with Orion, the constellation quickly fades into the glow of the city as the night progresses.

I have been pointing my telescope towards Leo the lion for a few years now, usually starting in the month of April. The Leo Triplet occupies the “sweet spot” in the night sky where I have an opportunity to capture a respectable amount of data throughout the night, with a meridian flip intermission in between.

View my latest image of the Leo Triplet (April 3, 2017)

Target Acquired: The Leo Triplet

M66 Galaxy

If you read my post on 8 deep sky targets for galaxy season, you’ll already know that the Leo Triplet is one of my favorite subjects to photograph at this time of year. Most galaxies are quite small when photographed through my 102mm refractor, but this trio of galaxies fits nicely within the frame.

The constellation Leo is present for the majority of the night during the months of March through May, which is where you’ll find the Leo Triplet. The diversity in galaxy types makes the Leo Triplet a satisfying astrophotography target for night sky photographers, both amateur and professional.

If you want to try it for yourself, set your goto mount to M65.  You’ll discover M66 and NGC 3628 nearby even in short exposures.

You can view my most recent image of the Leo Triplet further down the post. It is a good example of what to expect using a small refractor.

To me, the Leo constellation is most easily recognized by the sickle or “reverse question mark”, as I like to call it.  The sickle starts with the bright star Regulus and works up through the lion’s mane including another bright star, Algeiba.   I will often use Regulus as a target for my star alignment process, as its magnitude and location are familiar to me.

Leo Constellation Map

Camera: ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

I’ll continue my deep sky astrophotography work using the ASI071MC-Cool (one shot color) CMOS camera for the next 2 weeks. If you missed any of my latest experiences using this cooled astronomy camera, have a look at the video below. I begin to understand some of the basics of CCD-style astrophotography and end up with a much better version of the M81 and M82 galaxies.

A night of deep-sky imaging in the backyard

Like anything else, my enjoyment of the process becomes greater as I achieve better results.  I feel like I have a system that works now, so it is exciting to keep using the new camera.  I will likely capture one more deep-sky target with the ASI071 before returning it to OTA.

I photographed the Leo Triplet the night I shot the video below.  It was the second target after spending time on Bodes’ Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy.

I hope experienced Sequence Generator Pro users will excuse my lack of knowledge. I was delighted to be able to capture successful light, dark and flat frames using the ASI071 with SGP. Capturing flat frames was a little different than I was used to, but I eventually had success using the methods outlined on the AstroBackyard Facebook Page.

The team over at ZWO graciously included my video on the product page for the ASI071MC-Cool. I can only hope that sharing my experiences using the camera early on will be useful to future owners of the ASI071. It may give another perspective to the realities of switching to a CCD camera or dedicated astronomy camera by current DSLR owners.

I can see how SGP would do an amazing job automating almost the entire imaging session. I haven’t even scratched the surface of this software yet. The plate-solving, autofocus, and target sequencing features have opened my eyes to a new world of automation possibilities. These will come in handy when I eventually build a backyard observatory.

I also want to test out (APT) Astro Photography Tool before I have to send the camera back.  On the surface, it looks to be a slightly more user-friendly option than SGP.

Switching from a DSLR to a Cooled CMOS camera?

I have been asked this question a number of times, and the answer is not yet. For starters, the Canon 600D continues to be my only primary imaging camera. I have been given an amazing opportunity to test products (Including the ASI071MC-Cool) thanks to my partnership with Ontario Telescope and Accessories. I will be sending the ASI071MC Pro camera back in about 2 weeks from now.

The costs involved in upgrading to a dedicated astronomy camera are not in my budget for this year.  The equipment I currently use should paint a picture of the amount of money I am able to invest in astrophotography at the moment.

I have been very impressed with the results I have been getting with the cooled CMOS camera thus far. The final stacked images are probably the highest quality data I have ever brought into Photoshop. The 4 and 5-minute exposures captured using the ASI071 have been incredibly smooth, with very little noise.  The color balance is little different than I was accustomed to with the 600D, but there are ways to correct this in post-processing.

Goodbye Thermal Noise

My regular processing workflow with the DSLR included a lot of time spent correcting noise and gradients.  With the frames being captured at -30 degrees and below, removing noise is an afterthought.  I still run one noise reduction filter near the end of the workflow, but that’s it.

It’s too bad that I am reviewing the ASI071 in the early Spring when the temperature regularly drops to zero at night.  Those hot imaging sessions in July could really benefit from a cooled sensor!

My latest image: The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet

Click the image for a larger version

The image above was captured on March 17th from my backyard.  I did not use any filters with the ASI071 including the recommended IR-UV CUT filter for better color balance and to prevent star-bloat.  The camera was cooled to -30 degrees Celcius before taking each frame.

Astrophotography Details:

Equipment:

Mount: Sky-Watcher HEQ5
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)
Guide Scope: Altair Astro Starwave 50mm
Guide Camera: Altair Astro GPCAM2

 

Photo Acquisition Details:

Total Integrated Exposure Time: 3 Hours, 30 Minutes
March 23: 21 x 300 Seconds
April 1: 20 x 300 Seconds

Camera at Unity Gain
Support Files: 15 Darks, 15 Flats for Each Night

Processing: DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop

 

Astrophotography telescope

No filters, from a red-zone, light polluted sky!  I was shocked at the quality of the frames I was taking in the city with this camera.  I think that astrophotographers shooting in heavily light-polluted areas could benefit a great deal using a cooled CCD.

The photo above was under 2 hours worth of total integrated exposure time.  The potential for the ASI071 is remarkable.

If you would like to stay up to date with my latest images and equipment updates, please follow AstroBackyard on Facebook or Twitter.  You can also subscribe to the AstroBackyard newsletter here: AstroBackyard Newsletter

Until next time, clear skies!

Related Posts:

A photogenic group of galaxies – The Leo Triplet

Altair Astro GPCAM2 and Starwave 50mm for Autoguiding

Deep Sky Processing in Photoshop

Resources:

An incredible photo by one of my biggest inspirations, Scott Rosen: The Leo Triplet

Leo? Here’s your constellation – EarthSky

APOD – August 2011 – The Leo Triplet

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8 Deep-Sky Targets for Galaxy Season

|Galaxies|8 Comments

In the astrophotography realm, Galaxy Season refers to the period in Spring when the night sky offers up a buffet of incredible galaxies to observe and photograph. From early March until Mid-May, the window of opportunity for night sky enthusiasts is open to those who wish to a wide variety of different galaxies.

In this post, I’ll provide a list of promising galaxies that are possible to photograph with a small telescope. A higher magnification telescope is required for an up-close view of many of these galaxies, but it is still a lot of fun to try these with a small refractor as well. 

Astrophotography in the Spring

Whether you own a large SCT (Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope) or a small refractor, galaxy season means an opportunity to focus on a new array of deep-sky objects that are well-deserving of your attention.

The thought of photographing another galaxy full of countless stars and unknown worlds can make you feel pretty small. This is one of the many amazing feelings experienced by backyard amateur astronomers and photographers alike.

Sunflower Galaxy

The Sunflower Galaxy in Canes Venatici.

The photos you’ll see below were captured using modest equipment, with varying levels of skill and technical knowledge along the way. Most galaxies are better suited for telescopes with longer focal lengths due to their small apparent size and dim characteristics (See my latest galaxy photography setup). 

Many of the images in this post were captured using a small 80mm refractor (Explore Scientific ED80). The focal length of this telescope produces images with a wide field of view, and thus a small portrait of the galaxy observed.

Ideally, you’d use a telescope with a focal length of at least 600mm or more on the galaxy season targets mentioned below. This article was originally published in March 2017, and updated on March 28, 2020.

8 Targets for Galaxy Season

Why do amateur astronomers and astrophotographers call the time between March and May “galaxy season”? The answer is that our own galaxy blocks our view of many galaxies in the night sky, so we can see the most galaxies when we see the least of our own. 

This is particularly evident for observers in the northern hemisphere during early spring. The Virgo Cluster is in prime position for observing and imaging by late March, and it is absolutely filled with galaxies.

Most of these, of course, do not make great astrophotography targets. Here is a list of the ones that do.

1. The Leo Triplet

Designation: M65, M66, NGC 3628
Magnitude: 8.9 (M66)
Constellation: Leo

The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet is a personal favorite of mine because it offers a view of 3 distinctly different types of galaxies at once. The designation for these galaxies are M65, M66 and NGC 3628.

The photo above was captured from my backyard in March. 2019. The Leo Triplet is referred to as the M66 Group and lies approximately 35 million light-years from Earth.

2. Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy

Designation: M81, M82
Magnitude: 6.94 (M81)
Constellation: Ursa Major

M81 M82 Galaxies

I dare you to find a more photogenic pair of galaxies in the entire night sky.  These 2 galaxies are equally as brilliant, and conveniently close together.  These factors make M81 and M82 an extremely popular astrophotography choice. These galaxies are members of the M81 group, with M81 being the largest galaxy in the group overall.

The photo above was captured using my rarely used Orion 8” F/4 Newtonian.  The objects benefitted from the added focal length (800mm), but there is still not enough data acquired to do this pairing justice.

Here is a closer look at the M82 Galaxy (The Cigar Galaxy) captured using a telescope with a focal length of over 1000mm. You can now see some of the fine details and textures of this galaxy in detail.

M82 Galaxy

3. The Pinwheel Galaxy

Designation: M101
Magnitude: 7.86
Constellation: Ursa Major

The Pinwheel Galaxy

 

The Pinwheel Galaxy, or M101 as it is classified, is a beautiful face-on spiral galaxy located in the constellation Ursa Major. Photographically, the core of the Pinwheel Galaxy is evident even in short exposures. To capture the outer arms, longer guided exposures are needed.  

This gorgeous galaxy is located 21 million light-years from Earth. In 2006, NASA and the ESA released this incredible close-up of the Pinwheel Galaxy, which was the most detailed image of a galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope at the time.

4. The Whale Galaxy

Designation: NGC 4631
Magnitude: 9.8
Constellation: Canes Venatici

Whale Galaxy

The Whale Galaxy is quite small when captured through a small refractor telescope. However, the one advantage a wide field instrument has in this scenario is the ability to capture the nearby Hockey Stick Galaxy (NGC 4656, NGC 4657).

I really enjoy the look of this galaxy, as more integrated exposure time adds interesting details and color information reminiscent of the Cigar Galaxy.

I tried photographing this galaxy again in 2017 using a cooled CMOS camera (ZWO ASI294MC Pro) instead of a DSLR. This version is a little better because I used a refractor with more focal length (712mm). 

Whale Galaxy

The Whale Galaxy in Canes Venatici.

5. The Whirlpool Galaxy

Designation: M51
Magnitude: 8.4
Constellation: Canes Venatici

Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy is a magnificent sight through a large telescope under dark skies.  I have been lucky enough to observe M51 through a 20” Dobsonian telescope under dark skies. The interacting galaxy (NGC 5195) can be distinguished by keen observers.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is classified as an interacting, grand-design galaxy.

Here is a recent image of the Whirlpool Galaxy from 2020. I used a Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 refractor for this one, on a night was particularly good “seeing” conditions. 

You’ll notice that the image is in black and white, and that is because the image was shot using a monochrome CCD camera and a luminance filter. 

Whirlpool Galaxy through a telescope

The Whirlpool Galaxy.

6. The Needle Galaxy

Designation: NGC 4565
Magnitude: 10.42
Constellation: Coma Berenices

Needle Galaxy

This unique edge-on spiral galaxy was the subject of one of my first YouTube videos. This galaxy has a small apparent size, especially through a small telescope.

However, this does not take away from the dynamic presence of this “must-shoot” deep-sky object. 

7. The Black Eye Galaxy

Designation: M64
Magnitude: 9.36
Constellation: Coma Berenices

Black eye galaxy

The Blackeye galaxy includes a notable dark band of dust in front of the bright nucleus. This galaxy is in a prime location for visual or photographic observation in the Spring.  

Despite its small apparent size, M64 is a noteworthy target for visual observation in the constellation Coma Berenices.

8. The Sombrero Galaxy

Designation: M104
Magnitude: 8.98
Constellation: Virgo

Sombrero galaxy

The Sombrero is widely appreciated due to an iconic photo captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. This unbarred spiral galaxy is located in a vast area of black space in the constellation Virgo.  Larger instruments are better suited this small, yet striking galaxy.

It is interesting to note that the Sombrero galaxy is about 1 third the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy.  With an apparent magnitude approaching 9.0, this deep-sky object is within range of backyard telescopes!

9. Markarian’s Chain

One of the notably missing targets on this list is Markarian’s Chain.This is a stretch of galaxies located in the constellation Virgo and forms part of the Virgo Cluster.

Markarian's Chain

Markarian’s Chain of galaxies in Virgo.

Below you will find the video I created sharing the 8 galaxy season targets mentioned above:

I hope that this post can assist you in your own astrophotography endeavors as a reference. Each and every one of the galaxy photos took several hours to capture and process, yet it is still difficult for me to share them in their current state.  

As all amateur astrophotographers experience, I often look back at my old work and think “what was I thinking?”.

How to Find Galaxies to Photograph

I like to use a planetarium software called Stellarium to plan my galaxy season projects. This is free software that allows you to set specific filters catered to your interests. 

Stellarium also provides fascinating details about each of the galaxies you find, and key details such as their size, magnitude, and apparent altitude from your location. Be sure to set up your location information properly to ensure you are seeing an accurate representation of the night sky. 

planetarium software

Use a planetarium software like Stellarium to plan your projects.

You can also enter in your specific camera and telescope information in the sensor view mode, to get a preview of the exact image scale you can expect with your system. You can also try this handy image scale and field-of-view calculator to better plan your galaxy photo. 

As I learn new and better ways to produce high-quality images, I will update my collection of images taken during galaxy season. Clear skies!

Resources:

galaxy season

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Capturing M81 and M82 with an 80mm Telescope

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This post was originally published in March 2012, when I was still learning how to use my astrophotography equipment. I was starting to see some promising results using the Explore Scientific ED80 refractor and my Celestron CG-5 GoTo mount.

More importantly, the lessons I learned from Jerry Lodriguss were beginning to sink in and my image processing skills were improving. My workflow involving DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop has not changed, as I still use those 2 pieces of software to process my images today.

My latest version of M81 and M82

We had a few clear nights during this past week, and I was able to set-up and image for a few hours. The target I chose to shoot is a pair of galaxies in Ursa Major. M81, Bode’s Galaxy and M82, the Cigar Galaxy. They are two distinctly different galaxy types within a close field of view through a telescope.

These galaxies are an excellent choice for visual observations from a dark sky site. I can even see M81 from my light-polluted backyard using my 102mm refractor.

I used 4.5-minute subs for this picture, which is the longest exposures I have ever captured with my DSLR camera. I think I could go to about 5 minutes on a moonless night, but that’s probably it for my light polluted backyard. I desperately need to invest in an IDAS clip-in filter for my Xsi!

The Explore Scientific ED80 APO in my backyard

Here are the details of this photo:

22 x 270″ ISO 1600

Stacked with dark, bias and flat

ES ED80 Triplet APO Refractor
Celestron CG-5 GoTo Mount
Orion Mini 50mm Guidescope
Meade DSI II Guide Camera
Stock Canon 450D DSLR

Stacked in DSS
Processed in PS CS5

A close-up of the M82 galaxy (The Cigar Galaxy)

I have since captured these galaxies many times using a variety of telescopes and cameras. Here is a video of one of my backyard imaging sessions where I capture M81 and M82 with a cooled CMOS camera in place of a DSLR.

Photographing the M81 and M82 galaxies through a telescope (Video)

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