Images and Observing Reports from the Trottier Observatory

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) 

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) became a naked-eye comet in July 2020 delighting northern observers all around the world.  This image was taken from the Trottier Observatory using 3-second exposures for a total exposure time of 18 minutes.  Over that period the comet moved noticeably in relation to the background stars.  Notice that the motion is not aligned with the comet's tail.  This is because the tail is pushed out by the solar wind, so the tail always points away from the Sun regardless of the direction of the comet's motion.

Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101)

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as Messier 101, was shot over the course of three nights at the end of May 2015. It represents the first "deep" image taken at the Trottier Observatory, and is *true* colour! Yours truly (Mr. Starry Nights) did the image capture and processing (and image processing skill is the real secret to good astronomical images - though it doesn't hurt to have an amazing telescope!).

The Pinwheel Galaxy is a "grand" spiral, probably somewhat larger than our Milky Way, containing several hundred billion stars, and with a diameter estimated at 170,000 light-years. At a distance of about 27 million light-years, it's one of our nearest neighbours, as galaxies go! It's a very popular target with amateur astronomers, large and bright, and is relatively easy to find, just off the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. The bright pink regions are enormous sites of active star formation, which may have been triggered by a close encounter with another galaxy, perhaps a few hundred million years ago, which would also explain how the long spiral arm on the right ended up being extended far from the rest of the galaxy.

As astronomical images go, this used relatively little telescope time: only 4 1/3 hours of exposure, divided between a luminance (clear) filter (100 minutes) and RGB filters (160 minutes). It's not unusual for amateur astronomers to image a single target for 12 hours or more: my personal record is 17 hours, on my telescope in the Okanagan. And given the light pollution that surrounds the Burnaby campus, I'm stunned at the depth of this image: for those who know star magnitudes, the limiting visual magnitude on these nights was a measly 4.4, and there was even some thin cloud!

For those interested in technical details, our telescope is the 0.7-m aperture PlaneWave CDK700, our camera is the Finger Lakes PL16803, with an external filter wheel and TrueBalance filters from Astrodon. The image capture was done using TheSkyX, PlaneWave's PWI interface, and MaxIm DL for camera control. The luminance frames were binned 2x2, the colour frames 4x4, and the image scale is about 0.8"/pixel. Image processing was done using CCDInspector, PixInsight, and Photoshop.

Howard Trottier

M42 The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula, located just below the famous "Orion's Belt" in the constellation of Orion, is a swirling cloud of newly forming stars called a stellar nursery. It is the only nebula in the night sky that can be seen with the naked eye appearing as the centre of three "stars" in Orion's sword scabbard. Located 1300 light years from Earth, this is the closest place in the universe to us where new stars are being born. The swirling clouds are primarily comprised of hydrogen with a dusting of heavier elements; the fuel for stars and raw material for new planets. Drawn together by gravity, portions of the nebular cloud collapse into spheres of ever denser matter. Growing hotter under the increasing pressure, these spheres reach a critical temperature at their core where nuclear fusion begins and a new star comes to life. We can currently observe about 700 stars in various stages of formation within the nebula. Light of the newly formed stars illuminate the interior of the cloud giving the Orion Nebula its spectacular glow. At one time, billions of years ago, our Sun and the Earth would have been born inside a similar nebula that has since been consumed by the stars it formed with the remaining clouds drifting off into the galaxy.

Within the Orion Nebula, I see our origin story. I feel a part of this epic cosmic journey; chapters spanning eons culminating with our civilization here on Earth. I wonder about the possibilities within these swirling clouds of colour. Are there new planets? Will new civilizations be born here? When they look skyward will they see our world? What will remain of us when they do? What will be our legacy for others to discover on their own cosmic journey?

Images shot on the nights of Nov 10th and Nov 16th 2015

480 Luminance Frames @ 2 Seconds = 16 Minutes Luminance
130 X 3 Colour Frames @ 2 Seconds = 13 Minutes RGB
29 Minutes total exposure time @ Bin2
Processing with Deep Sky Stacker and Photoshop

Author/photographer Matt Cimone is a Space Geek who learned from Star Trek that life is about exploring the universe and doing good where we can. He's currently producing Chasing Atlantis, a documentary set against the backdrop of the Space Shuttle's retirement which explores how space has inspired his life and the lives of those he's met on his journey.

"In the Arms of Andromeda"

By Matthew Cimone

When I was a kid, my grandfather inspired my love of space. We'd stand under the stars shining in the clear North Western Ontario skies at Shebandowan lake. He has a cottage there that he built in the late 70's. He had this wobbly 60mm telescope that I think he bought from Canadian Tire. We'd look at the phases of Venus. One day, I recall him pointing to a hazey patch in the sky over the treeline. He explained that that "haze" wasn't a cloud but, in fact, another galaxy. I recall him saying that just as in our own galaxy, that was another ocean of billions of stars (and he'd emphasize "Billions...with a B!") I think my sense of wonder for the cosmos around me began on nights like those; in particular when I saw another galaxy for the first time and considered the scale of the universe.

Years later, when I ventured back into amateur astronomy and began working on our documentary, I wondered if perhaps that story was made up. Childhood memories can sometimes be pieced together from emotions and feelings and moments that are fragmented in our minds. So, two years ago, when I returned to the cottage with new astronomy knowledge and interest, I stood out on the dock in the summer and looked out to the sky where I remember my grandfather pointing out where Andromeda was. Sure enough, there it was, exactly where I remembered it from that time on the dock...probably at the age of 6 or 7. 

My grandfather turned 90 this past July and I thought an image of Andromeda would be a great gift idea. In anticipation of his birthday, and as a gift for a science fiction author who is a friend of mine and is working on a story set in Andromeda, I took the shots back in November and processed out an image with the help of Howard Trottier's introduction to PixInsight and lots of YouTube videos. The image is still a work in progress, but he didn't mind that the colours weren't exactly right. 

Howard pointed out something else in the image that I didn't know about, but fit as a parallel narrative. In the 1920's Edwin Hubble measured the distance to Andromeda using cepheid variable star M31-V1. His observations of these "nebula" and calculations to their distances helped us realize that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy and that there were galaxies outside our own. So, as Andromeda shaped my own sense of the scale of the universe as a child, so the galaxy shaped our understanding of the scale of the universe for our civilization. That variable star is in the image I took, captured completely by coincidence. I explained this to Henry, my grandfather, who has mounted the image in his study. 

My hope, in our public outreach, is that we can inspire others with the stars the way my grandfather inspired me. 


This is the first image to be obtained with our new planetary imaging camera, the ZWO ASI174MC. The image capture was done by Oleg Mazurenko on May 11 2016, and the results were processed by Howard Trottier.

If you look carefully at the image, you will see that Jupiter's Great Red Spot (GRS) was in the process of disappearing over the planet's south-east limb when Oleg was shooting the camera! The time was approximately 10:17PM, and one can check that the GRS was in fact on the planet's limb at that time using a free app called Gas Giants, or a very powerful Windows software package called WinJupos (both of which accurately account for longitudinal drift in the position of the GRS). 

We expect to eventually obtain much better results by increasing the magnification by 4X compared to what is seen in this image, by using a Televue Powermate (a superior alternative to the traditional barlow) that we acquired along with the camera. But to fully exploit the potential of this equipment, we will have to acquire much more experience with image capture and image processing!

This first image is already a pretty decent demonstration of the technique of "lucky" imaging. Lucky imaging is done by taking many thousands of frames of very short duration - in this case, only 5 milliseconds. The following short movie shows the sequence of 2000+ raw frames that Oleg captured over the course of a few minutes (note that the image at the telescope recorded by the camera is inverted north-south and rotated slightly, and the orientation of the final processed image was adjusted to put the planet's north pole at the top).

As can be seen in the movie, the image of the planet is generally very blurry. This is caused by turbulence in our atmosphere, which causes light to bounce around as it passes through thicker and thinner pockets of air, and is the reason why stars often appear to twinkle. However, every so often the air steadies, for a fraction of a second, and one gets a comparatively sharp image; this is well known to anyone who has spent time observing a planet through a telescope, waiting for the tantalizing details to pop out for a fraction of a second, before disappearing into the blur. The advantage of using a camera to record many thousands of short exposures is that one can use software to search for the comparatively few frames where the image was relatively sharp, and then to combine those frames to produce a result that is sharp enough to apply further processing.

Howard used two very powerful (and free!) software packages to process the raw frames, AutoStakkert and Registax, which are used by amateur planetary imagers around the world. He used AutoStakkert to align the individual frames, and to select and stack the sharpest 20%, and then used the wavelets tool in Registax to sharpen the result. PixInsight and Photoshop were used for some additional processing (noise reduction, contrast enhancement, and increased colour saturation). 

If you'd like to learn more about lucky imaging, checkout the excellent (and free!) introductory videos by a guy named Steve.

Star cluster NGC 869

This is a close up of the 12.5 million year old star cluster, NGC 869. Together with its partner, NGC 884 (just out of this field of vision), they make the aptly-named "Double Cluster", which resides in the northern sky constellation, Perseus. The Double Cluster cannot be seen by the naked eye, though it is a spectacular binocular object in dark rural skies, and its beauty can be uncovered in suburban skies using a telescope.

This image was captured and processed by Simon Fraser University grad Sarah Savić Kallesøe. The image was taken on November 29th, 2015, and its exposure time was not very long (compared to other deep sky images), a mere 8 minutes in total! The image was meant to be a test shot for training, but with some post-imaging work it turned out to be better than Sarah expected and is her first posted astro-photograph. Four filters were used (luminance, red, green, and blue), each at an exposure of just 120 seconds, with 2x2 binning.

Sarah says that it's amazing to believe that in just under 10 minutes, we can capture star shine that has traveled over 7,600 light years and display it on the screen right in front of you!

Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (Messier 13)

This image of the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, also known as Messier 13, was shot over the course of severals nights in June 2015. Yours truly (Mr. Starry Nights) did the image capture and processing.

M13 is one of the brightest globular clusters visible from the northern hemisphere, and lies at a distance of about 25,000 light-years. It is a fine sight even in a small telescope, and is easy to find, along the right side of the "keystone" in Hercules, just below the top right corner.

M13 contains about a half million stars, packed into a region only about 100 light-years in diameter. By comparison, there are only a few thousands stars within a similar distance of our Sun. In fact, if we were on a planet orbiting a star near the centre of M13, the sky would be crowded with so many stars that there would be no night-time (think Isaac Asimov)! M13 is one of about two hundred globular clusters contained in a large spherical halo that surrounds the central bulge of our Milky Way galaxy. Globular clusters were the first groupings of stars to form as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang, and consequently contain some of the oldest stars in the universe, at about 13 billion years of age.

This image contains another, very different kind of celestial treasure, a tiny spiral galaxy known as IC 4167, near the upper-right corner of the frame. This galaxy looks small only because it is at an immense distance of some 500 million light-years! The galaxy is likely to be comparable in size to our own Milky Way, with hundreds of billions of stars, and hundreds of its own globular clusters.

As astronomical images go, this one used very little telescope time. Less than five hours of raw frames were taken, of which only the best three hours were kept for the final image. Considering that this was taken from the light-polluted environment of suburban Vancouver, the depth and clarity of the image is amazing - but then again, our telescope is amazing!

The technical details of the equipment and image capture and processing are as follows. Our telescope is the 0.7-m aperture PlaneWave CDK700, and our camera is the 16 Megapixel Finger Lakes PL16803, with an external filter wheel and TrueBalance filters from Astrodon. The telescope was controlled using TheSkyX and PlaneWave's PWI interface, along with FocusMax for focuser control, and MaxIm DL for camera control. The raw frames were shot in unbinned red, green, and blue filters (no luminance), but the final image was downsampled by a factor of two, with a final image scale of about 0.8"/pixel. Image processing was done using CCDInspector, PixInsight, and Photoshop.

Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

By Sarah Savic Kallesøe

Welcome to the Whirlpool Galaxy, home to more than 100 billion stars! Much like Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way, the Whirlpool Galaxy is a spiral galaxy. The distinct blue spiral arms of the galaxy are the sites of star formation and the distance across the Whirlpool Galaxy is estimated to be roughly 60 thousand light years. The Whirlpool Galaxy is a mere 30 million light year trip away and is located in the constellation Canes Venatici of the Northern hemisphere sky. The Whirlpool Galaxy is one of the most iconic spiral and brightest galaxies and one can discover the beauty of the it with just a pair of binoculars under dark sky conditions.

The Whirlpool is also a prime example of galactic cannibalism! Notice there are actually two galaxies in this image, the smaller circular structure below the larger spiral galaxy. The gravitational pull of the larger galaxy is actually pulling the smaller one towards it. Over time, they will eventually become one unit. A similar galactic collision is predicted to be in the fates of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and our nearest neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy. Not to worry, this will happen far after our lifetimes.

This image was captured on the night of May 6, 2016 by Sarah Savić Kallesøe and Matt Cimone at the Simon Fraser University Trottier Observatory in Burnaby, Canada. The total exposure of the image is about 3 hours with 120 seconds per frame. The Red, Green, and Blue frames were captured with 4X4 binning and the Luminance frames with 2X2 binning.

A special thank you is extended to Dr Howard Trottier for generously sharing his wealth of astrophotography knowledge and for processing the image.

Dumbbell Nebula (M27)

By Sarah Savic Kallesøe

This curious celestial structure is called the “Dumbbell Nebula”, named after its visible light resemblance to a dumbbell weight. The Dumbbell Nebula is a planetary nebula, which forms as a layer of gas expands from an aging star. This particular planetary nebula is predicted to be about 1,200 light years away, spans about 4.5 light years across, and is located in the Vulpecula (“Little Fox”) constellation. The Dumbbell Nebula is second brightest nebula in our sky (the brightest being the Helix Nebula, located in the Aquarius constellation). Take a moment to think about this: the light captured for this image has travelled for over a thousand years, which means Europe was still in the Dark Ages when this light left the Dumbbell Nebula.

This image is a representation of the visible light emitted by the Dumbbell Nebula and was taken by SFU students Sarah Savić Kallesøe, Zeena Aburgeba, Ryne Watterson, and Rohit Grover. The processing of the captured image was done by Dr. Howard Trottier. This shot was taken between the late hours July 28th and early morning of July 29th at the Simon Fraser University Trottier Observatory. The exposure time per frame was 120 seconds and the total exposure time was 2.5 hours. The luminance frames were taken in 2X2 binning, whereas the red, green, and blue frames were taken in 4X4 binning.

Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635)

By Sarah Savic Kallesøe

This is an image of the Bubble Nebula and it happens to be the birthplace of a future star. The Bubble Nebula is an emission nebula, meaning this beautiful gaseous structure emits its own light due to the ionized nature of the gas. The predominantly red colour of this interstellar cloud is due to the ionization and light emission of hydrogen gas, the most common element in the universe. Emission nebula, like the Bubble Nebula, are areas of star formation and can even be found in the spiral arms of some galaxies, like the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). The Bubble Nebula is located in the constellation, Cassiopeia, about 7,000 light years away from Earth. It’s estimated that the Bubble is about 300,000 years old. The most amazing aspect of this image is the spherical, bubble-like structure; the diameter of that bubble is 7 light years, meaning it would take 7 years for a light-speed object to travel from one end of the Bubble to the other! That’s almost two times the distance from our Solar System to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri!

This photo was captured and processed by Sarah Savić Kallesøe, a science undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. The total exposure for this image is roughly 3.5 hours, using Red, Green, Blue, Luminance filters. Each frame had an exposure of 120 seconds. The L frames were captured with 2x2 binning and the colours were taken with 4x4 binning. In the future, I plan to incorporate the Hydrogen Alpha narrowband frames into the image to produce a more vibrantly red image and portray the presence of hydrogen gas in the nebula.

This image was captured at the Simon Fraser University Trottier Observatory in Burnaby, Canada. A sincere thank you is given to Dr Howard Trottier for his time and guidance.

The Moon

By Sarah Savić Kallesøe

This is the view of the Moon from the telescope at the Simon Fraser University Trottier Observatory! Unlike most astro-images display here, this image was actually taken by a cell phone camera. This image was taken in early February 2017, a rare moment of steady sky conditions between snow storms by Sarah Savić Kallesøe, a science undergraduate student at SFU. Should you visit the observatory and observe the moon through the telescope, this is similar to what you would see. Mind you, it is not advisable to view the moon without appropriate lunar filters if the moon is more than half illuminated.

It turns out that this image captured a number of Apollo landing sites! The markings on the image indicate the following sites: Apollo 11 (the first moon landing with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in 1969), Apollo 15 (1971), and Apollo 17 (the last and longest Moon stay, 1972). It is a humbling moment to gaze upon an astronomical body from which a handful of humans gazed right back at our tiny planet.