Day 2 of the SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, October 30, 2014

The second day of the SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar (SWAP) in Tucson, Arizona, involved a change in location. Yesterday, attendees gathered at the Hotel Tucson City Center InnSuites. Today through Sunday, however, all meeting sessions for SWAP and all activities associated with the Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo (that happens Saturday and Sunday) will be at the Tucson Convention Center.

Richard Wright presented an informative talk about equipment for deep-sky imaging at the 2014 SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar in Tucson, Arizona. // All images: Astronomy: Michael E. Bakich
The first session I attended was in the vendor’s hall, which hosted half of the split schedule of talks. Richard Wright presented “Intro to Deep-Sky Hardware,” which was an illustrated roundup of telescopes, focusers, CCD cameras, and more. This was a good talk for beginning imagers, which I estimate was about a third of the audience.

The second session in this venue was “Intro to Deep-Sky Software” by Warren Keller. The two talks complemented themselves well. Warren touched on a variety of platforms and operations, with particular emphasis on PixInsight and Photoshop.

Solar imager Alan Friedman gave a great talk about his passion, imaging the Sun. Here, he captures a live feed of audience member Barry Megdal to demonstrate various controls in the software he uses.
I bounced back and forth between talks, and caught just a bit of Christopher Go’s “High Resolution Planetary Imaging” session, which was excellent and highly detailed. Then I sat in on Alan Friedman’s lecture, “Imaging the Sun, an Intro.” Friedman lives in Buffalo, New York, so a lot of the time he deals with clouds. Still, during the 50 or so clear days he enjoys each year, he produces some amazing solar images. He showed numerous examples (images and videos), at which the attendees ooh-ed and ahh-ed, but more importantly he interjected valuable tips throughout his talk. One concerned the value of having a solar filter that has a uniform transmission.

After he concluded his 20-minute Powerpoint talk, Friedman hooked up a small camera to his computer, attached a tiny lens, pointed it toward one “lucky” audience member (Barry Megdal, a friend who accompanied me on two of the total solar eclipse tours I led, in 2006 and 2009), and gave everyone a live demonstration in image capture. Friedman adjusted sliders as he explained the purpose of gamma, saturation, brightness, histograms, and more. Seeing the image change in real time clarified the process for everyone. He then stacked an image from a video sequence, pointing out what was good and bad about the process, changing settings on the fly, and showing what effects various operations in Photoshop created. All in all, Friedman gave a terrific performance.

The venue, however, was anything but terrific. For this highly anticipated talk, we all met in a room no more than 20 feet wide (and not much longer). Along with Friedman, 38 people crammed into the darkened room. A few dozen more stood in the hallway viewing his slides through the windows along one side of the room. Claustrophobic? Don’t even think about seeing a presentation in this room. Surely there’s a larger lecture hall in this colossal venue!

At one point in Ben Jenkins' talk, "Intro to Spectroscopy," he captured and displayed the spectrum of an emission tube containing neon.
That said, I really wanted to hear the next talk in the tiny room, Ben Jenkins’ “Intro to Spectroscopy.” I realize that I’m attending an astroimaging conference, but spectroscopy, not photography, has always been astronomy’s most powerful tool, and it was one of my special interests during the time I was working on my college astronomy degree. Jenkins, an instructor at the University of West Georgia, presented this talk to another full house of 38 SWAP attendees on behalf of Charlie Bates’ Solar Astronomy Project, which is based in Georgia.

Jenkins started with a nicely detailed, but not too complex, general discussion. What is a spectrum? How do spectra form? How do we obtain a spectrum? What are the differences between emission and absorption spectra? He answered these questions and more.

Then he used a setup that included gas tubes of neon and helium, a webcam, a diffraction grating, and a laptop running the software RSpec to show how any amateur astronomer can break the light from celestial objects into component colors and analyze it. That led into a discussion of the Sun’s spectrum. Jenkins interjected activities that he and others have done during public outreach events, including taking quick spectra of different-colored shirts people were wearing. All in all, this was a great talk.

Next up was lunch. I spent it talking to the president of Vixen Optics, Brian Deis. He filled me in on some new and exciting Vixen products. Stay tuned to Astronomy because we’ll be reviewing them all.

Rogelio Bernal Andreo is a superb astroimager and an acknowledged expert on PixInsight image-processing software. His talks always introduce new techniques to listeners.
The next talk (I’m back in the big room now) was by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, a name you’ll recognize as an image contributor to Astronomy. Titled “PixInsight Intermediate,” this was an above-beginner-level talk aimed at attendees who already were somewhat familiar with this software platform used for image processing.

Throughout his talk, he identified problems common to astroimagers and then showed how he solves them. Andreo’s techniques are second to none, and his audiences always marvel at the results he obtains, especially his wide-field mosaics.

Next up was something completely different: Carl Hergenrother’s presentation, “Target Asteroid! NASA OSIRIS-Rex.” OSIRIS-Rex stands for the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. This spacecraft will launch in September 2016 headed to the asteroid Bennu, which it will reach in October 2018.

Carl Hergenrother of the OSIRIS-Rex project provided a fascinating look at the mission and the spacecraft, which will launch in 2016.
Hergenrother detailed the upcoming mission and captivated the audience by describing the sample return part, which scientists expect to return to Earth in 2023. “The spacecraft probably could return several kilograms of material,” he said, “but our minimum target is 60 grams.”

He then went through several of the many things astronomers hope to learn from this mission. For instance, they want to globally map the topography, mineralogy, and chemistry of Bennu, and they want to compare the observations made at the asteroid to the ones made here on the ground. That will provide a benchmark by which researchers can analyze other asteroids more reliably.

Hergenrother did a great job. And I like that the organizers of SWAP included this talk. It gave everyone a break from the detail-laden presentations inherent to astroimaging. Look for more about OSIRIS-Rex in the pages of Astronomy as the mission launch date draws nearer.

Well, it’s been another great day at SWAP. More to come tomorrow!

Related blog: Day 1 of the SouthWest Astrophotography Seminar


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