This One’s for Millie

10 mins read time

There’s an awful lot of space up there. I don’t do images for other people, because this hobby for me is something that’s already quite personal. But when it comes to wanting to do an image that pays homage to an amazing little girl, with Millie it’s an easy choice to make. For me, this project is as deeply personal as it gets, and often I’ve caught myself having an emotional moment over it. Yes, I’ve shed tears, without shame or guilt. We SHOULD be able to allow ourselves to be emotional over things that are intensely personal, and I’ll never apologise for it. Millie and her continual fight against congenital heart disease has always been a large part of the inspiration behind AstroHeart. It’s where the name came from!

Back Story

Born with half a functioning heart, flatlined, two strokes and three open heart surgeries before she was even a year old, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’s probably had the wind knocked out of her sails. For sure, on some days she isn’t up for much, preferring to pace herself and just conserve her very limited energy. On others, the good days, she can almost give her brothers (and me) a run for our money. But the good days have become less and less. And yet, despite that, despite knowing her limitations, she still manages to come at everything with a smile and a laugh that can melt the coldest heart. Millie has taught me more about living life in the moment than any other single person. They gave her virtually zero chance of survival, and yet here she is, eleven years on, not only fighting the fight against congenital heart disease, but kicking ass and showing the world how to live a full life. She might only be eleven years of age, but she has a wisdom far greater than her years. So, this one is for Millie, the inspiration behind “AstroHeart”, and one little lady who doesn’t know how to quit!

One little lady who can teach us all about how to live and never give up

The Capture

You’ve probably guessed what I’m going for. Located in the constellation Cassiopeia, in the Perseus Arm of our own Milky Way galaxy, some 7500 light years away, the Heart Nebula, or IC1805, has its name with good reason. At 100 light years across, and with the exception of Millie herself, it’s the biggest and most beautiful heart there is. To give you an idea of the sheer size of this nebula, the Helios 2 probe is currently the fastest manmade object in existence, travelling at a peak velocity of approximately 157,000mph. It would still take Helios 2 around 4269 years to travel across the Heart Nebula. To give that even more perspective, the Moon is approximately 250,000 miles away. It took Apollo 11 three days to reach it. It would take Helios 2 just under two hours!

I’ve been after this since I first started doing astrophotography, and my first attempt, with an astro modified Canon 450D, was pretty poor. There were dust bunnies all over the sensor, I totally knew nothing about doing calibration frames…it was just an unmitigated disaster.

The disaster that was my first attempt at the Heart Nebula back in 2017.

That was 5 years ago. But now I’m going for it again, this time with the right(?) equipment. I’m imaging with the SkyWatcher 72ED refractor telescope, and ASI183MC dedicated astronomy camera on the EQ5 Pro German equatorial mount, using the ZWO dual narrowband filter, with 3, 5 and 10 minute exposures at 111 gain and 10 offset.

The first session, even though it was a mere 90 minutes, went well, captured from my home in Nailsworth under stunning class 4 skies, and already surpassed the quality of my first attempt.

IC1805, The Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia. 90 minutes from the first session

Because I’m imaging in what us astrophotographers know as  narrowband, it means I don’t need to pay the moon as much attention as the filter blocks out a large proportion of the washout caused by our closest neighbour. It only allows the hydrogen alpha and oxygen wavelengths to pass through the glass in very specific bandwidths. Which means that whereas before when I would’ve been very restricted with the moon’s presence, I now no longer am and so can pour the time into it. Sadly though, the filter doesn’t filter out clouds!

I obtained a total of 17 hours worth of exposure time with the ZWO 183MC dedicated astronomy camera, across six separate nights during the summer. However, an option came up to purchase the Altair Hypercam 183C Pro, which is fan cooled, and so I sold the ZWO and bought the Altair Hypercam. The other difference with the Altair 183C is that it has a built in UV/IR cut filter, meaning that the stars don’t suffer from what we call “bloating.”

Although there’s essentially no difference in things like resolution and pixel size, I’ve taken the opportunity to start a new sequence with the new camera. This time I’m working on a 4 panel mosaic in order to go for a wider view and I’m doing the capture using the “To Do” and “Custom” tabs in APT (see below,) after importing the coordinates for each panel from Telescopius. A lot of astrophotographers use this website to plan their imaging sessions, and I have to say it’s proving itself pretty useful right now.

APT, or AstroPhotography Tools, is a software suite designed and built specifically to automate and facilitate the capture of deep space objects. It’s relatively simple to use, is incredibly low cost, and the developers are constantly working on improvements, actively engaging and encouraging the astrophotography community to participate in feedback and suggestions for both improvement and enhancement. Disclaimer: they didn’t ask me to say that, I just happen to REALLY like using the software and am happy to endorse it. Of course, I’d never say no to a free license for a year either.

Something Incredible (and scary) Happened

One of the groups that I’m proud to be a part of, UK Cloud Magnet, has adopted Millie as an “honoury magneteer.” Every month they have an Object of the Month (OOTM) and during the summer they ran this across two months, August and September so that they could show their support for her fight. This is a fight that has again become much more immediate. Her condition has deteriorated to the point where she is now pending her fourth open heart surgery. This was meant to happen during the summer so that the risk of post surgical infection would be reduced, as well as minimising the effect on her entry into secondary school. Unfortunately, for various reasons it didn’t happen, and several weeks prior to Christmas, Millie suffered a severe oxygen desaturation and cardiac event. Her hospital is now pushing hard to get her in for pre-surgery testing and actual surgery in the new year. Not how we envisaged going into 2023!

So many amazing astronomers and astrophotographers showed that support and captured their own renditions of this beautiful region of deep space in her honour. For this I could never begin to thank them all enough and I’ve found the whole experience incredibly humbling. I can’t currently show all the images that these amazing people have captured for her, but when the time comes I’ll release the post that shows them all. UKCM, thank you SO MUCH for your support and kindness over the years with Millie. You’ve shown that there are wonderful people around, and I’m so grateful to each and every one of you and am truly humbled.

In addition to this, two of the magnets, Mick and Paul, carried out a sponsored bike ride across 9 gruelling days from John O’Groats to Lands End without support, on behalf of several charities, including the British Heart Foundation, and partly inspired again by Millie. We were hoping that Millie would’ve been able to meet them as they passed through Gloucester, but she unfortunately wasn’t well enough on the day. I and my partner were lucky enough to be able to catch up with them though, and it was a very proud moment when I finally got to shake Mick’s and Paul’s hands and thank them personally.

Caught up with Mick (far left) and Paul (1st from right) by the side of the A38 just outside Tewkesbury

The Final Image (For Now!)

I’ll update this post as I near completion on this incredibly personal project, but for now, I’ll leave you with what I have so far, which I feel is my best image to date. Thank you so much for reading, and for now, clear skies all.

17hrs with the ASI183MC. This image is available in the AstroHeartUK online shop as well. Anything raised from this will be donated to Birmingham Children’s Hospital cardiac unit.
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