Discovery Astrophotography with ZWO ASTRO

Astrophotographer’s Story: Chad Leader

Chad is the winner of ZWO ASIWEEK #40/2020, he lives in Washington, DC, USA where the Bortle scale is at level 8.

Q1: Hello Chad, congratulations that your nice image won #ASIWEEK! First, can you introduce yourself to us?

My name is Chad Leader. I am a 43-year-old musician currently living in the Washington, DC area. I enjoy astronomy, music composition and performance, hiking, and traveling.

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Q2: When did you start astrophotography? What telescope did you use at that time?

I began astrophotography a little over a year ago in July of 2019. I bought a used Celestron Edge HD 8” with an AVX mount. Prior to that, I owned a Celestron Nextar 127 SLT that I used for planetary observation.

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The Triangulum Galaxy (M33). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, ASI294MC Pro, ASIair Pro. 48 x 300s with Baader UV/IR filter plus 42 x 300s with Optolong L-eNhance filter = 7.5 hours of integration. Bortle 8 skies.

Q3: What’s your current gear? Can you show us some images?

I currently have two setups for astrophotography. My main setup is my Edge HD 8 on a Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount. I use it in two configurations: with the 0.7x reducer for a focal length of 1422mm (at f/7), and with the Hyperstar lens for a focal length of 390mm (at f/1.9). The second setup is a much lighter rig for travel. It is an Explore Scientific ES ED80 that I use with a Hotech SCA flattener or Starizona APEX 0.65x reducer. I’ve been using it on a Meade LX85 or my AVX mount. My imaging cameras are the ZWO ASI294MC Pro and the ASI533MC Pro, and my guide cameras are an ASI174MM Mini and an ASI120MM Mini. I’m using a ZWO EAF on both, and I’m using the ASIAIR PRO to acquire images and control guiding.

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Both rigs, ready to image from my backyard.

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The Bat Nebula (IC 1340). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI294MC Pro, and ASIAIR RRO. 6.9 hours of integration (five-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

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The Shark Nebula (LDN 1235). Equipment: Explore Scientific ES ED80 with Starizona APEX 0.65x reducer, Meade LX85 mount, no filter (broadband), ASI294MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 1.9 hours of integration (two-minute exposures). Bortle 4 skies.

Q4: How did you take your winning picture “The Wizard Nebula”? Was the whole process rather smooth to you?

I shot this picture over two consecutive nights in August using my Edge HD 8, 0.7x reducer, Optolong L-eNhance filter, and an ASI294MC Pro. Framing the target was a challenge. It was difficult to see precisely where it was in the field of view, even with 60-second test exposures at bin 2. I took my time and framed it exactly where I wanted using 180s exposures. Framing is crucial for this nebula with my smaller field of view. Once framed, I setup an autorun sequence to take 300s exposures. The ASI294 was cooled to 0°C and the gain was set at 250. The first night didn’t go so well, as dew formed on the corrector plate and ruined about two hours of subs. The second night, I utilized my dew strap on the OTA to mitigate the dew issue. Seeing conditions were also much better on the second night. I ended up with a total of 97 300-second exposures, which equates to 8.1 hours of integration time.

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The Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI294MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 8.1 hours of integration (five-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q5: Do you often take astro photos from your backyard? How is the air condition there?

Most of my astrophotography is done from my backyard. The skies are terrible, unfortunately. I live about one mile outside of Washington, DC in a bortle 8-9 white zone. Learning how to work around light pollution has been one of the biggest challenges of this hobby for me. It’s always a treat when I can make it out to darker skies.

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Pickering’s Triangle (NGC 6979). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI294MC Pro, and ASIair Pro. 5.75 hours of integration (five-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q6: You also use an ASI533MC Pro camera, can you tell why did you select it? Was it a good match with your telescope?

I chose the ASI533MC Pro because the pixel size was a better match for my Hyperstar setup than the ASI294MC Pro. The 294 was slightly under-sampled with the Hyperstar, offering a resolution of roughly 2.39”/pixel. The 533 offers about 1.94”/pixel resolution on that setup. I also looked at how a lot of targets would frame up with the square sensor, and thought it seemed logical. One of the first pictures I took with the 533 and Hyperstar setup was the Rosette Nebula:

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The Rosette Nebula (Caldwell 49). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with Hyperstar v4, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI533MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 3.5 hours of integration (one-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q7: Your image “The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus” that got an APOD in August, 2020 was also taken with the ASI533MC Pro. Could you also tell how did you capture it?

The evening I captured this picture, I was participating in a “virtual” Zoom star party hosted by my local astronomy club (Astronomical Society of Greenbelt). I was using my f/1.9 Hyperstar setup along with the “Live” feature on the ASIAIR PRO to quickly produce images for the other participants. I produced a 20-minute live stack (one-minute subs) of the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula for the star party that looked pretty good, so after the star party ended I decided to slew back to the target and set up an autorun sequence with dithering for the remainder of the evening. The ASI533MC Pro was cooled to 0°C and gain was set at 200. I was able to get 229 subs at 60s for a total of 3.8 hours of integration. It was an exceptionally clear night.

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The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula (IC 1396). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with Hyperstar v4, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI533MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 3.8 hours of integration (one-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q8: Have you ever considered trying a mono cooled camera?

I am currently considering the new ASI294MM Pro mono camera. I really admire a lot of the SHO pictures I’ve seen and the extraordinary details that are captured using mono with narrowband in light pollution. It seems like the next logical step for me, as I’ve been using an OSC camera from the beginning. I have to say, though, that OSC cameras are extremely convenient, and with the right techniques they can produce equally impressive photos.

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The Pleiades (M45). Equipment: Explore Scientific ED80 with Starizona APEX 0.65x reducer, Meade LX85 mount, Astronomik L-2 UV/IR cut filter, ASI294MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 3 hours of integration (120s exposures). Bortle 2 skies.

Q9: What post-processing software do you use? People say the complex astrophotography software is one of the reasons that makes newcomers tend to give up at the beginning. What do you think?

I use Pixinsight and Topaz Denoise and Studio. There is definitely a learning curve with these software programs. I can see why some newcomers to astrophotography may get frustrated and give up; however, post-processing is one of the most important parts of the hobby. Having the ability to pull out details and colors to maximize your data and create a unique astro photo is extremely rewarding. Learning to use the software effectively takes time, much like learning to play a musical instrument. I learn something new about post-processing every session – it never ends.

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The North America Nebula Nebula (NGC 7000). Equipment: Explore Scientific ES ED80 with Starizona APEX 0.65x reducer, Meade LX85 mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI294MC Pro, and ASIair Pro. 5 hours of integration (two-minute exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q10: What suggestions might you give to the newcomers?

I would suggest that beginners focus on perfecting data acquisition techniques first. Make sure your setup is tuned in, with a flat field and pinpoint stars. Learn how to set your gain and exposure times. Research how to properly calibrate your light frames. Why? Because you can always re-visit quality, properly calibrated data when your post-processing skills improve over time. Re-processing old data on the nights when clouds prevent you from acquiring new data is a great way to practice and improve in this hobby.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, no filter (broadband), ASI533MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 6.8 hours of integration (240s exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q11: Do you feel interested to contribute to the scientific community?

I would love to be able to contribute to the scientific community. It’s difficult to compete with all of the sophisticated equipment present in the major observatories and the numerous space-based surveys. As DSO astrophotographers, I think we are acquiring qualitative data that also happens to be beautiful. While our pictures often do not provide any new scientific information, they do contain interesting and accurate data that can be appreciated visually. This is why I’m drawn to astrophotography – it is a fusion of science and art, which is a rarity in life.

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My first attempt at the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) from 2019. Equipment: Explore Scientific ES ED80 with Hotech SCA flattener, Celestron AVX mount, no filter, ASI294MC Pro. 2 hours of integration (one-minute exposures). Bortle 2 skies.

 

Q12: What’s your wildest dream for the future of CMOS astronomy cameras?

CMOS camera technology is already amazing! One thing I would like to see become available to amateur astrophotographers in the future is affordable, effective adaptive optics systems. CMOS wavefront sensors could play an important role in making this possible.

Q13: Can you tell us what project are you working on now or do you plan to do in the near future?

I’m currently on vacation in California, and I’m hoping to do some imaging from a bortle 2 location with my ES ED80 setup. Unfortunately, the smoke from the wildfires is obscuring the skies here, making it impossible to image. If it clears before I leave, I’m hoping to image some dark nebulae in Cepheus, including the Iris Nebula and the Seahorse Nebula. I’d also like to image the Pleiades using the ASI294MC Pro with the Starizona APEX 0.65x reducer.

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The Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI533MC Pro, and ASIair Pro. 5.83 hours of integration (300s exposures). Bortle 8 skies.

Q14: What feedback or suggestions do you have for ZWO?

ZWO is a great company -and I’m not just saying that! I own several of your products, and I’ve been very pleased with the performance of them all. Your innovative designs are based on logic and convenience. Additionally, the ZWO team has been very responsive if I’ve had a question about something. If I had to make a suggestion, it would be to continue developing, improving, and adding features to the ASIAIR PRO, and to continue designing new “problem-solving” hardware gadgets such as the tilter and filter drawer. Items like these have solved and simplified a lot of astrophotography challenges for me.

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The Eagle Nebula (M16). Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 8 with 0.7x reducer, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount, Optolong L-eNhance filter, ASI533MC Pro, and ASIAIR PRO. 3.4 hours of integration (240s exposures). Bortle 7 skies.

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