After reading through your posts I have to say that I'm impressed by your knowledge, and thankful for the time you've taken to "write a short book" on the subject in this thread!
Jon, that is magnificent! Have you considered posting some tutorials on astro photography? I would love to learn how you make those images, they are just stellar.
Thanks, guys! For all your kind words.
I'm happy to write some tutorials. I have an area set up on my blog at jonrista.com for that. I'd love to see more people get into astrophotography. I've been limited myself to just the moon and larger solar system objects, and maybe some of the larger nebula like Orion, until I got myself a good tracking mount. It's a complex form of photography, but if you like a challenge and like all the gadgetry and math and tinkering and experimenting that goes into astrophotography, you'll love it!
I'd like to get a little bit more experience under my belt before I do write any tutorials...some things I'm still learning and refining my knowledge of. Learning more about the software options, for one. There are a LOT of processing techniques I still need to learn, and some additional tools (like PixInsight). One of the biggest issues, one of the most difficult to deal with unless you get a $20,000 mount, is tracking performance. I'm somewhat "lucky" to be imaging at "only" 600mm...most telescopes are around 1600mm and longer, some of the larger ones are well over 3000mm, and with a barlow, you can get as long as 9000mm or longer!
There is inherent error in all tracking, due to imperfections or precision limits in gears and worms and the like. It's called Periodic Error. There are also sources of non-periodic error, such as seeing (atmospheric turbulence), flexure (the mechanical flexing of anything on the mount, including the tripod, the mount itself, the telescope and guidescope, etc.), wind, etc. A real high end mount, like the 10Micron GM2000HPS, which uses "absolute" encoders which track the absolute position of both the RA and Dec axes with extremely high precision, is basically immune to most of these sources of error. Periodic error, unexpected movement due to wind, even seeing effects, are delt with by the absolute encoding and built-in sky modeling in a mount like the 2000HPS. That sucker generally costs about $24,000 for a complete package, though.
Tracking issues on lower end mounts are usually delt with by "guiding". Guiding uses a secondary scope, usually smaller than the primary scope, along with a small video camera and special guiding software, to lock onto a specific star, model it's shape, identify the "centroid" (an identifiable center point that can be reliably found and regularly tracked), and send correcting guide signals to the mount to tell it to slow down or speed up relative to "sidereal rate". This can solve tracking errors that are primarily due to periodic error. If you use "Off-axis Guiding", you can also solve tracking error that might be caused by various sources of flexure (which pretty much every scope is going to have to one degree or another), slight movement due to wind, etc.
Tracking is probably one of the toughest things to learn about astrophotography, but also one of the things you have to tackle early on to get images like the Rosette image I last shared. You have to get tracking error, in terms of arcseconds, to an average level below your image scale (the relative size of a pixel in arc seconds)...for example, the 7D has 4.3µm pixels, and with a 600mm lens, my image scale is 1.48" (arcseconds)...so for ideal tracking, my RMS error needs to be ~0.7", about half the image scale. I have been able to get my tracking accuracy down to 1" to 1.2", but I haven't yet figured out how to consistently get it below that.
Once I do, I'll be more able to image things on a consistent basis, and I'll have more data to stack and learn processing techniques with. I hope to be there by summer, at which time I'll probably start writing tutorials on my site.