I only recently became involved in amateur astronomy and astrophotography. It has quickly become, however, one of my great passions. As many young people do, I developed an interest in astronomy as a high school student when I looked through my science teacher’s telescope and had my first jaw-dropping look at the wonders of the rings of Saturn. I somehow managed to scrape together enough to buy my first telescope, a Tasco, if memory serves. Unfortunately, I had the all too familiar experience of getting immediately disappointed with the views available with such a limited scope and , alas, gave up the hobby and moved on to college, law school, raising a family and to a law practice which has now lasted more than 20 years. I live in the fine southern community of Macon, Georgia where I moved when I became a student at Mercer University in 1977, having moved from my hometown of Hollywood, Florida. I am blessed to have a beautiful and supportive wife and wonderful son. I am particularly grateful to my wife Debbie for putting up with my late nights under the stars.
My career as a lawyer has been rewarding in many ways, and it has certainly been financially lucrative. So it came to me one night that I could actually afford to re-kindle my old love of astronomy with some new, much more technically and optically sound equipment. So I bought a 12" Meade LX200. It was love at first sight! I also began to read heavily on the subject of astronomy and started viewing many of the helpful Yahoo forums and other websites available on the internet, which include a forum devoted to Meade telescopes, Takahashi, SBIG imaging cameras, and many others. I also recently joined the Middle Georgia Astronomical Society, which has many very fine members who have been extremely helpful to me. I have also been impressed with the friendliness and availability of some of the World’s foremost amateur astronomers and astrophotographers through their web pages and forums. I have been particularly amazed at the quality of the astrophotos that are now being done by several of these individuals. In particular, I have been impressed and inspired by the work and technical expertise of people like Dr. Robert Gendler, Russell Croman , Ron Wadaski and many others.
After acquiring my Meade, I just couldn’t stop there! I also purchased two great Takahashi’s, The TOA-130 and the FSQ-106. These are both high-end refractors of 5" and 4", respectively. I also have my eye on a 12.5" Ritchey-Chretian telescope and a Paramount mount. I am also trying to figure out a way to build an observatory. But, as anyone who has ever viewed Dr. Gendler’s superlative photographs can attest, excellent results with imaging can be achieved in your own driveway! And this is where I have, thus far, done all of my imaging.
It did not take long for me to want to do more than “see” objects through the telescope. I loved the idea of actually capturing the images in a camera and printing them out for the world to see in the way that Dr. Gendler and others have done so well. I had no idea that amateur astronomers now had, with the advent of CCD cameras, such as the amazing images being produced by companies like Santa Barbara Instruments Group (SBIG), the ability to produce images that in many instances surpass the quality of pictures that we were used to seeing in textbooks in science class, and which rival many being done, even today, at the big university observatories and elsewhere. Many of the pictures produced by these world class astrophotographers are simply stunning and can legitimately be called works of art. I am now presumptuously trying to do my part. I have acquired three SBIG cameras, the ST-2000XCM, the ST-10XE and the new research model, STL-11000M, which has an amazing 11 million pixels!
Image acquiring is difficult work. First you must find, compose and focus (much harder than it sounds) your subject. You then have to expose enough images in the various filters (including red, green and blue filters for color images and, in most cases a clear or hydrogen-alpha filter for “luminance”) to have a sufficiently high signal to noise ratio to get the pleasing results you strive for. You must also either have a mount that tracks the sky well enough to take unguided images or a way to “guide” your camera and scope. Of course an excellent mount and a good guider are best. (I am fortunate to have both with the Takahashi NJP Temma 2 “go-to” mount and an SBIG AO7 that works with at least two of my cameras. All three cameras are also self-guiding). You must also have good polar alignment and a proper balance of your scope and imaging equipment on the mount to achieve best results in tracking your subject. But that is only the beginning! Processing the images is the biggest challenge. You must take dark frames, flat frames and , in some cases, bias frames, and, by using these frames with your “light” image, “subtract” as much noise as possible from your images to further increase the signal to noise ratio. This is called calibrating the images. You must then align the multiple frames you have taken (sometimes dozens, and perhaps over several nights) and then combine them together using one or more image processing programs. I use mainly MaximDL for acquiring and calibrating the images and Photoshop CS for the final combining and processing of the images. I also have and sometimes use CCDops, CCDsharp, CCDsoft v.5, Astroart, Registax, RegiStar, StellaImage, AIP4Win and CCDautopilot! Whew, trying saying that in one breath!
I hope you like what you see on these pages. I want to thank my nephew Jeff Combs, my webmaster, for doing an excellent job! I also hope that you like something on this site well enough that you might actually like to own a copy for yourself. Every day I acquire new knowledge on how to improve these images. New processing techniques are being learned and developed and new software versions of some of the programs mentioned above keep getting better and better. I hope that my images will continue to improve as well. While I am not planning on giving up my day job, I have sure found a new way to enjoy the night!
In the summer of 2009 I became more focused on Planetary imaging. In July a comet or asteroid collided with Jupiter which focused the astronomical community on that planet, me included. I gained a bit of recognition for some of my Jupiter images which were featured in several studies conducted by various astronomical associations, including ALPO (The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers) and the British Astronomical Association, among others. Four of my images were used as part of an animation which was featured on NASA's Astronomy picture of the day. One of my photos was used on the front page of Spaceweather.com and another image appeared in the January 2010 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine. An image of the Elephant Trunk nebula that I took last year was also published in the August 2008 issue of Astronomy magazine.
I have had an opportunity to give talks at this year's Flint River Sky Party in April 2009. I also spoke at the Peach State Star Gaze in 2009.
Brian G. Combs