Friday, 27 January 2023

Astrophotography - attempt 2

There were a few hours of clear skies on the evening of 25/26 Jan, so I did another session. My initial attempt to block out the street lamp flare by using the lens hood didn't work - test exposures showed a nicely illuminated 'circle' around the outside of the image -- with the lens hood encroaching into the FOV and being well lit by the street lamp. I think the lens hood must be meant for use with my 50-200 mm zoom lens rather than the 18-55 mm zoom lens.

So I removed the lens hood and relocated from the front porch the our back yard, where our house and boundary fencing block out all direct illumination from street lights and the neighbouring houses (can't do much about the Bortle 5 sky darkness in my back garden. Driving 15 minutes to a nearby national park provides a slight reduction in light pollution (Bortle 4) which will be helpful to try and image the E3 comet on 11 Feb. If I drive 3.5 hours to my hobby farm/lake house I have access to a 'dark sky' which is Bortle 2. The best dark sky site I could access is at Coonabarabran, close to the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring Observatory -- unfortunately that is a 6 hour drive from Sydney!). Orion was getting low by the time the skies had cleared, so I simply aimed at a patch of sky above Orion. Unfortunately having the camera pointed more towards the zenith made it a bit awkward to check the focus after each test shot, and my homemade Bahdinov mask (cut from some paper and cardboard) didn't seem to work very well, so after ten minutes I gave up and simply turned the focus ring all the way over to 'infinitiy'. Big mistake. Especially as I didn't bother taking another test exposure to check the focus, but simply cleared the SD card and commenced taking a series of lights, darks, biases and flats.

I took 11 sets of 9 x 3 second exposures at F/5,5, 55mm FL and ISO 12,800. The sets of 9 exposures were due to the D3300 self-timer mode only supporting up to 9 shots in a sequence. You then have to press the shutter button again for another set of 9 shots (after the initial delay of 5 seconds I had set to minimize camera shake from pressing the shutter button). I also had to reset the self-timer mode after each set as the camera display shut down after a few seconds and reverted to single exposure mode. I could probably fiddle with the shut-down delay setting to avoid having to reset the self-timer setting after each series, but that might cause an issue with battery life (the fully charge battery lasted for two nights - about 3 hours of camera use - before needing to be recharged).

I had also worked out how to get properly exposed 'flats' using the 'A' mode (aperture priority) that kept all the manually setting unchanged, but worked out the correct exposure time. I used a piece of fine weave white cloth (a lot of people use a 'white T-shirt') over the lens and the 'light box' app on my tablet to provide a uniform illumination. The flats seemed OK (the automatic exposure time was 1/8th second) with the histogram being fairly central for the flat exposures.

I processed the lights, darks, biases, and flats using SiriL, and all went well until it got to the 'find stars' stage required to register (align) and stack the lights. The software reported the process failed, with '0 stars found' - which is due to my lights being too out of focus. The software finds stars by finding the centroid of a star (a couple of illuminated pixels), and won't work if the image is too out of focus. Looking at a couple of my 'lights' the stars were totally out of focus and spread over dozens of pixels! I definitely should have taken a single test exposure and checked the focus was 'reasonable' before wating an hour taking exposures.

I've made two small purchases to improve future astrophotography sessions with my DSLR and tripod - I bought a commercially produced 'Bahdinov mask' for about $6 (it is being shipped from China, so probably won't arrive until the end of Feb -- well after I want to image Comet E3 around 11 Feb). I also ordered a cheap ($24) intervalometer from that will allow me to 'program' a series of exposures and then execute them with a single button press on the hand controller. This will allow me to execute an entire series of 100 or more 'lights' with a single button press, rather than having to use a series of 9 shots each individual started. Also, because I won't have to touch the camera at all during the series of exposures, I won't have to have a delay between each exposire -- so rather than a 3 second exposure being followed by a 2 second delay, I can just fire off a series of 3 second exposures one after the other -- reducing the overall time by around 40%. Once the 64 GB SD card on order has arrived (to replace the current 8GB SD card) I will also be able to increase the number of lights, darks, biases and flats from 99/54/45/45 to 300/100/50/50 - which should improve the signal to noise ratio and bias compensation. There isn't another clear night predicted for a week or more, so hopefully my SD card (and possibly the intervalometer) will have arrived before my next imaging session.

How to waste an hour by not checking focus before taking a series of 99 3-second exposures. D'Oh!

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Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Astrophotography - attempt 1

I've been interested in astronomy since childhood, and spent a large chunk of the money I earned working during vacations while I was a uni student in the early 1980s on a Meade 10" telescope (I previously had a 4.25" Tasco reflecting telescope during high school, that my mum bought me as a birthday present - it wasn't cheap but wasn't particularly good quality). Despite having invested a considerable amount of money (around $5K for the telescope, lenses, solar filter etc - which in the early 80s was about 1/20th the cost of a three bedroom house!) I didn't actually use the telescope very much. More recently (early 2000s) I bought a Meade DSI monochrome CCD camera, but had trouble using it to take any astrophotographs at prime focus, so gave up again. Then, a few years ago, I bought a Nikon D3300 DSLR camera to use while on vacation in New Zealand, with plans to also use it for astrophotography. Yesterday was a clear night, so in preparation for trying to take some images of Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) when it is visible close to Mars in the southern skies around 11 Feb, I setup the camera on a tripod on our front porch and took a set of 90 x 2 second exposures (total 3 min exposure) of the Orion constellation using the 18-55mm 'kit' lens at F/3.5 and ISO set to 12,800. I also took a set of 45 matching 'dark' frames and a set of 45 1/4,000th second 'bias' frames and 45 (badly overexposed) 1/15th second 'flat' frames, which all were then processed/stacked using the free software SiriL.

I was pleasantly surprised by the result (in parts) of my astrophoto, with the region near the M42 nebula in the Orion constellation being recognizable, and of roughly comparable (OK, mine is a lot worse) quality to a similar photo taken in 1890 by the Government Astronomer at Sydney Observatory using a 6" portrait lens on an astrographic camera with a 4 hour long exposure.

But despite the region around M42 being 'OK' in my image, the overall image was rubbish, with a lot of 'flare' being apparent. I think I had two major issues: 1) I didn't check the histogram of the 'flat' images taken using a 'white screen' on my tablet, so ended up with vastly overexposed 'flats', and 2) I didn't put on the lens hood that came with the 18-55mm zoom lens, so may have ended up with 'flare' due to light from a nearby streetlight getting caught by the lens. Next clear night I'll repeat the exercise, but try a more zoomed in view (55mm) and properly exposed 'flats' (and the lens hood!).

One good thing about astrophotography as a hobby (once you have bought the equipment) is that it is cheap to do -- you just recharge the camera battery and delete the files from the SD card and you are ready for another night of imaging.

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Thursday, 12 January 2023

$1MM home loan conditionally approved

The bank finally approved (with conditions) my investment property home loan application. The loan amount will be $1MM (the full 'purchase price') of which $900K will be used for settlement and the remaining $100K use to clear and close some existing liabilities (our remaining home loan and associated portfolio loan). The conditions that have to be met by the settlement date are mostly to reduce my existing credit lines on various credit cards and the Citibank 'redicredit' unsecured personal loan 'line of credit' by a total of about $120K. I'm currently in the process of closing the an credit card account (that has a $27K credit limit) and reducing the balance outstanding on my 'redicredit' account from $60K to $30K (which is a bit of a pity, as it has a fixed interest rate of 2.9% until May 2025). I also have to reduce the credit limit on a couple of my credit cards from around $15K and $25K to 'only' $2K and $3K (as the bank credit risk calculation assumes you have to service payments on the entire credit limit at the exorbitant 19% interest rate that would apply if you didn't pay the credit card balance in full each month).

After settlement I will basically only have the single $1MM mortgage (at around 5.39% interest) as outstanding debt, plus $30K on the redicredit account (at 2.9% interest) due to be paid of in May 2025, and a couple of credit cards with low credit limits for everyday spend (that is paid off in full each month).

The vendor is scheduling valuation appointments during the coming week, so I should also find out the current valuation for the apartment from the bank in due course (I expect it to be somewhere in the vicinity of $1.3MM). The valuation of our home was already done last week and came in about $100K lower than my monthly estimated valuation. The report noted that some 'deferred maintenance' had affected the valuation, so if we were going to sell our home we would fix up any minor and cosmetic issues which would probably bring the market value closer to my monthly estimated figure.

Aside from the risk of not being able to let the apartment for the expected rental (or having lengthy periods of vacancy) my biggest concern (aside from if I lost my job) would be if the mortgage interest rate rose significantly. Every 0.25% hike in the overnight cash rate set by the RBA is likely to be passed on as a 0.25% increase in the variable mortgage interest rate, and on a $1MM loan that would translate into an additional $48 per week in interest. Hopefully inflation might start to moderate early in 2023. It appears to have already peaked in the US, but the Australian monthly data isn't showing a similar dip as yet.

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Monday, 9 January 2023

Challenger ripped me off on my deferred lifetime annuity

As previously posted, I ran a quote for a deferred (for 40 years) lifetime annuity with Challenger the week before my 61st birthday. At the time the quote was to receive monthly payments of $4,625.51 (on my $10,000 investment) cpi-indexed after the 40 year deferral period (so would commence the month before I turned 101. There was a notice that the quotation was only valid until my birthday (the following week), so I made sure to submit the application online and did the electronic document signing online, so it was all submitted the week before the 'deadline'.

However, even though the $10,000 rollover from my superannuation account was processed and I received a welcome letter from Challenger with details on how to setup my online account password, when I logged in there was no investment product listed. So I phoned the customer service and was initially told that the processing had been delayed as the admin team needed to confirm the 40 year deferral period with the client (me) or my advisor (also me) and for some reason couldn't contact me (even though they had sent me several emails for the application confirmation etc.).

I then received another email stating the payments could not be deferred 40 years, but could only be made immediately (either monthly, bi-annually, or annually), which made no sense as I had applied for a deferred annuity, not an immediate annuity. So another call to customer service. This time they said that according to the PDS the maximum deferral period could not commence annuity payments more than one year after you turn 100. But I pointed out that I had actually submitted everything electronically the week before my 61st birthday, so the first payment should have occurred within the year after I turn 100 (which is just within the limit specified in the PDS). I suggested that perhaps the problem was simply that when they got around to processing the application it was after my birthday, so the first payment date was after the allowed maximum - in which case I was happy to change the deferral period to 39 years.

I was supposed to receive a call-back to confirm the situation that afternoon (last Tuesday) but never received a call, so today I had to call Challenger again to chase up what was going on. This time they confirmed that the application had now been processed  (on 4 Jan) with a deferral period of 39 years. I checked what the payment amount would be, as it reduces slightly for each year less deferral. It turned out that the new monthly payment amount was now only $3,722.92 (or $44,675.04 pa) indexed to cpi, which is a massive reduction from the figure I had been quoted for the 40 year deferral.

I suspect that not only was the payment amount reduced due to the deferral period changing from 40 years to 39 years, but that they also calculated a reduced amount due to my now being 1 year 'older', and also the annuity amount may have changed due to rising interest rates/cpi etc.

Overall, the fact that they didn't process my application in a timely manner reduced my annual annuity amount by $10,801pa. The only reason I'm not more annoyed by this is the fact that it is very unlikely that I will live long enough to start receiving any annuity payments, so I've basically thrown away $10,000 on a long-shot bet that I might live past 100 ;)

Oh well, at least it will give me something to whinge about on my 100th birthday.

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