New Mexico Skies Astrophotography

   I spent 7 nights at New Mexico Skies from May 29th to June 5th 2008. I had 4 very good nights, clear without much wind, 2 nights that got partially clouded with high thin haze around 2am, and the last night that was too windy. I had decided beforehand to rest and not stargaze that last night anyway. The sky at 7300 feet elevation in New Mexico, in complete darkness, is just amazing. There are no lights around, so it is possible to discern faint stars even at the horizon level. In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is at 3800 feet elevation. There is still a lot of atmosphere above that point through which we need to look. There is a lot of light pollution with lights from homes, cars, street lights and car dealerships. The air is also very humid all the time. The atmosphere and humidity act like fog and diffuse the light pollution. As a result, the sky is very red quite high above the horizon.

   The biggest globular cluster in the sky is Omega Centauri, not far from the Scorpion. The cluster is in the southern hemisphere of the sky, but appears for a short period of time in June around 10pm. It lies very low on the horizon, just above it. In North Carolina, it is very difficult to find it because all the stars are lost in the red glow of light pollution. With binoculars in May I had much trouble finding it, and even then I was not sure to have found it. In New Mexico, the sky is dark all the way to the horizon. Omega Centauri is low, but it is an easy naked eye target. The quality of the sky in New Mexico is so much higher than in North Carolina. It is much easier to get pictures as objects stand out much brighter on a much darker background. It is easy to find them. Contrast is enhanced naturally and colors are more saturated and brighter. Processing the pictures is also therefore easier.

Lagoon nebula
Eagle nebula
Swan nebula
Trifid nebula
Cocoon nebula
Eagle nebula (Epsilon)
Trifid nebula (Epsilon)
Rho Ophiuchus nebula
Summer Milky Way

   I took my telescope with me because I didnít want to just push a button and get a picture from equipment that wasnít set up by me. Astrophotography is difficult, so it is very rewarding to be able to do everything correctly from A to Z. My routine was to get dressed for a cold night just before sunset. At sunset, which was around 8:05pm each day, I would walk to the observatory pad and set up my telescope out of the car and ready to take pictures. I would polar align, balance the mount, focus, acquire the target object and start taking lots of pictures once the sky was truly dark. The set up is guided automatically by a secondary telescope with a webcam, so I had time on my hands to relax, sit and look at the sky with binoculars, enjoy the shooting stars every 5 minutes or so, walk around and talk to other astronomers, look through other telescopes. As the cabin was very close, I would also sometimes go back to have a small rest.

   If you think this is crazy, consider this. Another astronomer, a guy with white hair and a white beard, came with his mini van on Monday evening. He came all the way from New Jersey with his own monster telescope, an 18Ē Dobsonian. He started to drive the day before, Sunday, at lunchÖ His telescope is a visual telescope with which it is not possible to take any picture. He spent the week there, with just memories to bring back home. However, the views in that 18Ē Dobsonian were simply amazing. We looked at a few galaxies, like the Whirlpool galaxy M51 in particular. The smaller companion was visible, as well as the spiral structure with distinct arms and even some details on them. We looked at some nebulae like the Trifid nebula M20. The three petals of the nebula were clearly detached on the dark sky with the black bands separating them. It was almost like looking at black and white photographs.

Whirlpool galaxy
Southern Pinwheel galaxy
Croc's Eye galaxy
M 100               
M 61               
NGC 4565
NGC 4725

   As for me, I made sure that I made the most of the trip by taking the pictures I wanted. I was prepared. Instead of deciding at the last moment what I was photographing, I had a big list of objects with a schedule, best time to take them and the best order in which to take them. Itís always better to know in advance what is visible and where if you donít want to waste time.

   I wanted to take advantage of the sky as much as possible by taking lots of objects. At the same time, quality comes with long exposures, at the expense of total number of pictures. At the end, when all was over, forgetting the bad frames, I had 21 different objects for a total of 20 hours and 12 minutes of exposition. In 6 nights, thatís almost 3 hours 30 minutes of pictures every night. It always takes some time to set up the telescope, focus, acquire the target. The sky being dark around 10pm, it means that in average I was busy with astrophotography until at least 2am each night. Itís a good use of the time I had there. I am not used to stay up very late at night. I am even less used to stay up very late 6 nights in a row. Because there was no driving involved to go back to bed, it was very easy to follow that rhythm.

Star clusters
M 4               
M 7               
Omega Centauri
Great Hercules cluster

   Itís often the case that something goes wrong when I go star gazing on the Blue Ridge. I usually have problems with polar alignment, tracking or some equipment fails. Most of the time, the focus is not good enough. Focusing is critical and hard to achieve correctly Ė the quality of the result is very sensitive to the sharpness given by the focus. But I practiced a lot before the trip. I made sure I knew what I had to do and what checks I could rely on. I took a deep breath, took my time, double checked the precision of the focus. I am glad to see that at last, I was able to achieve very good focus all the time. Itís a relief. Nothing went wrong. Actually, thatís not true, the charger to my portable battery powering the mount and camera died before the last night. Hopefully for me, some other guests had the same battery and were kind enough to lend it to me for that night while they were enjoying visual tours of the heavens.

   Every time I look up at the heavens, with a telescope or with the help of a long exposed picture, I am always in awe in front of the infinite display of shapes and colors. The universe is filled with pure natural beauty.

Copyright 2008 Jean-Denis Douvier