Astrophotography can be divided into two camps: terrestrial and deep space. Both can be equally challenging for different reasons. But recent advances in technology have also made both more attainable and enjoyable.
Terrestrial astrophotography, as its name suggests, is the practice of photographing the night sky with a foreground anchored on earth. It’s the more accessible and less equipment dependent of the two, requiring only a camera, lens, and tripod. Planning a composition with the backdrop of the Milky Way or other celestial objects has always been the hardest part of terrestrial astrophotography. But in the last decade, a slew of computer and smartphone apps have helped all photographers realize new possibilities of achieving amazing images of landscapes coupled with our galaxy, near-earth comets, and even solar eclipses.
Deep space astrophotography focuses mostly on astronomical objects (nebulae, galaxies, star clusters) outside our solar system and without foregrounds altogether. It has inherently come with a larger investment in time and equipment. The use of an automated tracking mount is nearly imperative, and control over that mount and the peripherals attached to it has necessitated the use of a computer. Portable, economical tracking mounts are relatively new, but these have only solved one-half of the equation.
The Problem With Astrophotography
The problem with deep space astrophotography has always been one of equipment. There are thousands of unique products made by hundreds of manufacturers. Getting all these disparate items to communicate with one another and work together can be a wholly frustrating endeavor. The fact that there are multiple astronomy interface standards makes this more complicated. Nothing is truly plugged and play, so getting things to work properly can take an enormous amount of effort and constant troubleshooting. The use of a computer running specialized programs has been the only way for consumers to get all of their peripherals to run simultaneously.
For those of us without dark skies in our backyard or a backyard altogether, entering into deep space astrophotography has been a challenge. The enormity and sheer mass of traditional astronomy equipment present a significant barrier as well, one that led me to sell off all of the equipment my father and I had accumulated in our mutual venture into amateur astronomy, as I sought a better solution.
By 2018, the proliferation of small tracking mounts had necessitated the next evolution in portable astrophotography. With the success of miniaturizing the complex mechanics of larger more accurate tracking mounts, came the need to miniaturize the computing side in kind. Multiple individual solutions made their debut, like Astroberry and Stellarmate, but the standout has been the ZWO ASIAIR, now in its third generation. Imagine the ability to automate nearly every function of astrophotography wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet. This was the next evolution in electronically assisted astronomy (EAA).
With these new products, it's now possible for an amateur astronomer to fit their entire setup into a camera bag, rather than the trunk of a car. The ASIAIR in particular allows for the seamless integration of multiple accessories, to expand the efficacy of astrophotography. Things like autofocus units, filter wheels, guide cameras, and tracking mounts, all can be easily controlled wirelessly and automated with little to no input.
Why Is It Significant?
Products like the ASIAIR have helped to streamline the acquisition of astro images. Anyone with a smartphone can now be an amateur astronomer; that's a powerful message to send to prospective customers. And in ZWO’s case, they included support for both Canon and Nikon cameras, opening the world of electronically assisted astronomy to hobbyist photographers. This inclusion of support for the most popular digital cameras allows one to incrementally creep into the wider world of electronically assisted astronomy. What's more, they are assured complete compatibility when pairing products in the ZWO ecosystem. That’s a huge deal for hobbyists who don't want to spend time researching product compatibility and troubleshooting those issues. With a minimum investment, new customers have access to a range of features that have only been available to serious astronomers.
For deep space photography, in particular, the ASIAIR makes the initial setup nearly foolproof. By utilizing something called plate solving, it can examine images from your camera during polar aligning to help you to achieve near-perfect alignment in a matter of minutes. This reduces the human element of error introduced into the process. Plate solving can further assist when you’ve managed to find your intended target, examining the image to determine where in the sky your setup is pointed. If your star tracking mount has go-to capability, you’ll never need to manually find an object ever again.
Fully Wireless Control
Touching anything connected to the camera at any time during an astrophotography session could disturb the entire process, knocking the rig out of polar alignment, or moving the field of view away from your intended target. But with the ASIAIR, since everything is wireless, you can adjust all the camera settings, take practice photos, and even process those photos, without ever stepping near your setup. Even for hobbyists who are running a more permanent setup, say in their backyard, the included Ethernet port allows for a direct connection to a stationary home router or pocket WiFi router, meaning one could theoretically have access to their entire astronomy setup from the comfort of the entire house.
Once you’ve polar aligned, taken preview images, and are ready to shoot, the ASIAIR has an autorun feature that is like an intervalometer on steroids. You can program just about every parameter you can think of for an entire night of imaging. Included in this feature, is the ability for the ASIAIR to store the data you collect in neatly collated folders on its local storage.
All of the features mentioned above don’t need extra equipment to work. But that's where things get way more interesting. With the ASIAIR, you can add guiding cameras, which can help with the sustained tracking of the mount. There's an option to add an automatic focusing unit, which can even be adapted for use with any kind of lens/camera combo. And lastly, if you’re serious, you can even add an automatic filter wheel that will rotate filters in the correct position based on the specific set of images you’re capturing.
If the above features aren’t enough, the ASIAIR can also do live stacking, dithering, planetary imaging, automatic meridian flips, and it even has a planning mode for imaging multiple targets on the same night.
My Specific Use Case
I first started using the ASIAIR with the iOptron Skyguider Pro, and it also works equally well with the Skywatcher Star Adventurer. Initially, I was amazed at the way it expedited the achievement of precise polar alignment. The wireless control and autorun features were a huge boon as well. After a while, I even added an autoguiding camera and scope to improve the tracking over a night's imaging run. The problem with all of these trackers is the same, however. They are manual, meaning you must physically move the camera to your intended target.
The biggest breakthrough came when I paired it with the Skywatcher AZ-GTi. As far as I know, the AZ-GTi is the smallest and most affordable fully GOTO mount on the market today. With a few off-the-shelf products and an upgraded equatorial firmware by Skywatcher, this setup is the most capable fully automated astrophotography rig that can fit into my camera backpack. The most important part for me at least is that I can take it anywhere, and the setup and teardown can happen in moments. This would have been impossible before. Although the portability of the AZ-GTi is a large part of my success story, not having to bring a laptop and the power requirements to run it cannot be ignored. I can run everything off of two small smartphone battery banks which I already had.
The best part of this system is its portability. I live in a big city, so I must travel at least 30 minutes away from home to get decent images. After the initial setup and polar alignment, I can relax in my car and control and monitor everything without any physical interaction. Collecting images is a long process, and there's nothing better than reclining inside while watching Netflix until I’m ready to go home.
As an amateur astronomer and avid astrophotographer, the ASIAIR has transformed my relationship with these hobbies. I wouldn’t dream of shooting deep space objects without using one. There's just not much more to want out of this device. ZWO has carefully crafted a product that meets the needs of the smartphone and tablet generation. And they have breathed new life into a traditionally stuffy, exceedingly DIY, and sometimes overly complicated hobby.