Capturing a Quasar

I’m sure we’ve all been told at various times “You can’t do that.” I know I have. Many times. One of the joys I find in astronomy and astrophotography though is being told that very thing, and then doing it anyway.

Sometimes it ends in failure of course. I just shrug and tell myself it’s absolutely fine, and then look for something else I “can’t do.” And then do it.

When it comes to astrophotography, it’s obviously nice to get the pretty images. But for me it’s more than that. I like to push my gear right to the edge of its performance and capabilities. It feels good to fly against conventional wisdom, and not settle for what it SHOULD do, but find out what it CAN do.

Conventional wisdom told me that going after a quasar, especially this one, was most probably futile. I was using a camera that’s designed primarily for lunar and planetary work, coupled with a telescope that’s built for wide field imaging. So, this shouldn’t work. But what I’ve found is it’s about managing expectations. I don’t expect much. In this case I hoped to get something, even if it was just a faint pixel of light. And that’s exactly what I got.

But still, it shouldn’t have worked. The 72ED telescope has a maximum effective magnitude of 11.1. My target, was an apparent magnitude of 16.3, well outside it’s envelope. I was placing a lot of trust in equipment that at times can be subject to “hiccups.” And this on a mount (EQ5 Pro) that I essentially had to rebuild not long ago after it fell 30ft down the garden.

Quasar S5 0014+81 (also known as 6C 001403+811827), located in the constellation Cepheus, is pretty deep. I’ve already imaged fairly deep with AGC2218 in Draco, at between 2 to 3 billion light years. I was already pretty happy with going deep. But I wanted to go deeper. Much deeper, but I was stuck over where to go with it.

This one came about more by luck than judgement. But don’t most of the best things happen like that? I was trying to get onto NGC 7023, the Iris Nebula, to add to the almost 14 hours of data I already had. But the mount chose this time to not want to play ball. For whatever reason it just wouldn’t platesolve to target. My backup was NGC 40, a planetary nebula also in Cepheus. But I was skimming through the deep space stuff there and this one caught my eye.

I created a custom object in the software (APT), input the right ascension and declination coordinates, pressed “goto” and shrugged. Remarkably it platesolved straight there. So I stuck with it in between passing cloud banks that seemed to form directly overhead.

Chart created using SkySafari 6 Pro and STScI Digitized Sky Survey. Image used with kind permission

Whilst waiting for the imaging run I found a widefield view with the quasar marked on it and checked the single 3 minute sub that was on screen. Then I double checked and then triple checked. Sure enough, right there in the middle of the screen was a pixel so faint that you could miss it in the sensor noise if you weren’t looking for it. I checked the downloaded area map again, noting the offset between two brighter stars, confirming it was indeed what I was after. Thank you to DeepSkyCorner for allowing me to use their chart of the area in order to confirm this.

To say I danced a jig would be an understatement. I thought I did well with AGC 2218. This though…this was 12.07 BILLION light years away, much much further. The light from this little pixel left when the universe was still only just over a billion and a half years old. Our own solar system wouldn’t exist for another almost 8 billion years!

Like anyone else with a passing interest in astronomy and astrophotography, I like the pretty pictures of galaxies and nebulae. But this to me is so much more than that. Looking at the image itself is pretty unremarkable. It’s a pixel of light among other pixels of light. It’s the KNOWING though, of how old this one is, how far it is, and the fact that I was able to capture some of that from the back garden. Sometimes I can go full on nerd with something, and this is one of those times.

Tech Stuff

MountSkywatcher EQ5 Pro
TelescopeSkywatcher 72ED
Focal Length420mm
CameraZWO ASI178MC(uncooled)
CoordinatesRA 00h 17m08.5sDec +81° 35′ 08″
Some information from NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database

Some deep space objects have names often referring to ancient lore of some sort , but for the more interesting ones, such as this, they derive their names from more mundane sources. In this case it comes from the 5th Survey of Strong Radio Sources whilst the numbers correspond to equatorial coordinates in the B1950 epoch. The coordinates quoted above are the more widely used J2000 ones. It’s other “6C” designation comes from the 6th Cambridge Survey of Radio Sources with the more accurate B1950 coordinates. Source

Widefield of the area around S5 0014+81. Pretty uninteresting isn’t it?

The above image is of the area containing the quasar. It’s wide at 420mm and represents an hour’s worth of integration time, plus calibration frames. Not much to look at is it? Lots of little points of light with no distinguishing features. What we’re doing though when we look at these images, is essentially time travel. Although light is the fastest known thing in the universe, it still takes time for it to travel. And the vastness of space is so huge that it takes light a long time to travel any appreciable distance. So when that light arrives at us, the observer, it’s often travelled for many millions, billions, of years, and we’re seeing that object as it was when the light left. With that in mind, a lot of what we look at, if we apply “right now” to what we’re looking at, probably doesn’t exist as we’re seeing it. But we won’t see those changes for a long time.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’m going to leave you with my final image of this mindbogglingly distant object. Thank you, and clear skies all.

Quasar S5 0014+81 in the constellation Cepheus. 12.07 billion light years away

Acknowledgements and references

Coordinate information obtained from NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database

Finder chart and object designation information from DeepSkyCorner


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