Returning To The Pillars

“So if we assume we are not the only civilisation in the galaxy, then at least a few others must have arisen billions of years ahead of us. But where are they?” – Brian Cox

Last year I imaged Messier 16, otherwise known as the Eagle Nebula, a stunning area that contains the even more gorgeous Pillars of Creation, an incredibly apt name for this beautifully mesmerising area of natural star formation. Sadly I was only able to grab just over an hour on it at the time. Tonight is forecast to be clear as a bell all night, and although I have work in the morning this is going to be so worth every minute of sleep I don’t get. This will be my second broadband run at it, using the same imaging train as last year (the 72ED and ASI178MC), although this time I’m running it on the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer. So join me, as I begin my second session on the Pillars of Creation.

The Forecast, It Lies!

Increasingly I’ve become more frustrated with using Clear Outside, as the forecasts it’s been producing have been either not entirely accurate, or just plain wrong! So I’ve been using Sat24 more and more, and I’m finding this handier. It produces an animation of the previous 2 hours of the UK, so that you have a fair idea of any cloud buildup heading your way. It’s not foolproof, but I’m relying on it more. That said, there’s no substitute for the Mk.1 eyeball.

So after a later start than I anticipated, I started off with my scope in a new configuration. Right from the outset this proved to be problematic. Whereas I’d had the guidescope sat on top of the main scope, I now had it sat in the finder shoe. This unfortunately had the effect, even with the autofocus motor on the opposite side in an attempt to offset the weight, of rendering the whole thing pretty off-balance. It wouldn’t even manage 30 second subs without trailing, so I ended up just removing the whole guiding assembly and leaving it in tracking mode, not an easy thing to do in darkness. With that it was able to manage 30 second subs. Far from ideal but M16 is bright enough that it didn’t cause much of an issue. So, 250 subs at 30 seconds each. I platesolved to target, set it going and got a couple of hours sleep in the summerhouse with the doors wide open. I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it feels to sleep this close to nature.

My alarm went off at 3am. However I was that tired from having celebrated Millie’s 10th birthday, that all I could manage was a cursory glance before nodding back off again. I woke at 5am properly, by which time we were in full daylight, at which point I shot the full suite of calibration frames and packed up.

2hrs 16mins using a combination of 15 and 30 sec subs. This includes last year’s dataset as well

The above image was taken using the data from last year plus the less than an hour’s worth of usable data I was able to obtain from the second run. From this point I made the decision to utilise the ZWO Duo Narrowband Filter to hopefully bring out the Oiii that’s in this area as well, although looking closer at the above image I’ve overcooked it on the star reduction, so another run at the original processing is in order I think.

My First Attempt At Narrowband

I’ve never imaged in narrowband before, but as the Pillars are quite possibly my most beloved of deep space jewels, it seemed apt that I should choose them as my first narrowband (or NB) target. I’ve written a separate piece on this in its own right, so I won’t go over it again. If you’d like to have a read of it, then you can find it here.

So this was now my third night (including last year’s run) of imaging the area, and it went as well as most others seem to have done recently, ie not as good as hoped but not a total disaster either. Out of the 250 frames of 30 second subs, I was able to salvage 120, so exactly an hour, which was enough to have a semi decent look in both hydrogen alpha and oxygen, as you can see below.

An hour on the Pillars in Ha and Oiii using the ZWO Duo Narrowband Filter and 72ED

I’m liking the way the narrowband imaging is going, and I’m looking forward to attempting to integrate the 2.5hrs of RGB I have with whatever narrowband data I get. That said, my fourth night (last night) was an unmitigated disaster. Struggled to push even 30 second subs, even after rechecking polar alignment and balance. Should’ve checked the levelling because I found this morning when I was packing it away that I was too high on the front leg. Still, out of the 2hrs of data I managed to obtain, 14 minutes were salvaged as cloud came in just after I nodded off in the summerhouse. I’ll add it into the overall data anyway.

More Time and Data

We can never get too much data on our objects of interest. For me this year, the Pillars have been frustrating but absolutely outstanding, and have certainly surpassed my hopes and expectations, curtailed only by a month of poor weather. From my location at home now, they’re pretty much done, and so I can only wait until next year to add to the data I already have.

So, for now, I leave you with my final images of the year on the stunning and beautiful Pillars of Creation, in both traditional and starless format. I don’t usually go starless (and I’m almost certain I could work some kind of dodgy innuendo in there), but something about this one said “give it a go.” Am I ever glad I did!

I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on which version you prefer, either the traditional with stars, or the version that’s been run through StarNet++. I know which one is my personal favourite, but let’s hear yours.

Thank you for taking the time to read and for now, clear skies all.

The Pillars of Creation in HOORGB 3hrs 30mins 15sec
Pillars of Creation in HOORGB after putting through StarNet++

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