James Paulson's roll off roof observatory at the Sunridge Observatory site, taken in the summer of 1986, housing a 10 inch f/5 Cave Astrola Newtonian reflector telescope

Friday, December 18, 2009

Climbing the Hill (Part 1)

I often read about newcomers to this hobby learning the ropes of what it's all about, so I thought I would write an entry about my journey through the waters of how we do this.

Let's dispel some myths first. Deep sky objects are faint, no matter what size scope you use, and the sky is a large place to find a small object. The joy of finding a new object is akin to discovering a needle in a haystack, or a gem in a mountain of rock. But unlike those experiences, this one comes with some tools to help make the job easier. I came to this hobby in the 70's, and back then things were a little different when it came to learning the sky. But those experiences are still the same today, the technology will only help you to a certain extent, and beyond that, it is this root level knowledge that gets a griphold and kicks in when everything else can't bail you out.

Begin with a basic planisphere. Some will say to use Stellarium, but then you are lugging a laptop outside, and ruining your dark adapted eyes with it. A simple planisphere will get you in the ball park of what's up and where as far as constellations are concerned. Put away the telescope for now, just use a planisphere, grab a chair, and a red covered flashlight, and begin to learn the constellations. Start with a really prominent one, like Orion in the Winter, easy to find, and then work your way out from there in larger and larger circles. Once you've grown the circle a bit, familiarize yourself with those constellations that lie on the ecliptic, the series of constellations that the sun and planets follows. Use software if you like to use the moon's position in the sky to determine the rough location of some of the constellations. You can watch the moon move across the sky on a monthly basis, and it is a highly visible indicator that can be very helpful.

If you are really bent on using a telescope, stick to easy targets like the moon or brighter planets that you can identify. Enjoy the craters, practice changing eyepieces, centering targets, print a moon map and enjoy the thrill of first hand discovery. It never quite goes away, even years later, so don't think mastery at this stage. And don't forget to use the locations of those planets to learn the constellations and vice versa. If you are going to use your telescope's finder, aim at a distant daytime object and set the crosshairs dead on between the finder and main scope at a medium to high magnification. The finder will be hard enough to use at night without it being accurately pointed. Learning how to point a telescope properly is an exercise in growth itself, how to deal with the mount, it's motions, damping after movement, etc, all are important. Aim it at stars, learn the names of a few bright ones as you learn the constellations, begin to memorize their names. Night after night and time after time this begins to grow as the stars in the east gradually wander to the south and finally the west and the seasons pass onward. In 12 months you will have come full circle with the plane of the ecliptic and learned many new constellations. And don't think you will learn it all in one year, but that first year will bring a lot of growth.

This hobby takes time, patience, practice, a little gear, more patience, some mistakes, some success, a bit of reading, and some interaction. Good luck in your great new endeavour.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wintertime and Future Plans

The recent cold snap has forced me indoors to retreat and plan for better evenings ahead. This is a hobby and as such I am not required to participate in it when conditions are not favorable to my enjoyment of it. Some will endure cold weather and some have made reasonable steps to do so with observatories and heated clothing, but I am not there yet.

So taking stock, as this year of my return to the hobby comes to a close, I am proud of my accomplishments so far. I have acquired some decent gear including a pair of Garret Optical 15x70 LW binoculars on the very stable Far Sight binocular mount and Orion Paragon tripod back in early May. My drive for a telescope lead me to purchasing the LXD75 SN6 in late June. I added a few accessories to it in July, including a dew cap, a custom made accessory bracket for mounting cameras and a guidescope and a Meade LPI to image planetary and lunar shots. I spent some time paying for all of this, and went on to purchase an additional counterweight, and the Canon XS dslr camera in October. Recently in November I picked up an Orion ST80 and brackets to mount on the SN6 for use as a guidescope and a grab and go scope. I now have pretty much everything I need to at least attempt to do some visual astronomy and both wide and narrow field imaging, as well as begin to work outreach programs with kids.

In the coming months I would like to sell the Cave 10 inch f/5 and provide someone with a nice scope to use. I am very pleased with the SN6 and even though it lacks a bit of aperture, it's portability and views more than make up for it all. I'm at a stage in my hobby where I really know what I want and also know what I don't need. My simple plans include adding a few additional eyepieces, a Meade DSI for use as an autoguider, and a basic diagonal for the ST80, all low cost and affordable items. I plan to focus my efforts in astronomy on astrophotography and finally reach beyond a beginner stage with my imaging and to a point where I can begin my ultimate quest, and that is to image the entire Messier catalog. It is a simple plan, but in the process of doing so I will get to know them all in great depth.

My love for astronomy in general may wax and wane a little, but it never quite goes away, and the longer I sit on it, the more the desire grows to do it again.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who reads this blog, from all over the world. I know that I have inspired some of you, and if nothing else shown you a little of what can be done when you set your minds to dream beyond this pale blue dot.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Progress So Far

I am pleased to report that digital astrophotography is not the bear that many people have lead me to believe. Like conventional film astrophotography, there will be disappointments, but the basics are pretty similar. Don't let the disappointments get you down, they are necessary for learning.

The following is a pretty basic guideline for how I image with my Canon XS DSLR.

1. Use a high ISO setting, at least in the beginning, like 800 or 1600. Aim your camera at the target. Make sure the camera is set in RAW + JPEG mode. I use a timer to control mine but you can use a laptop. I prefer the timer.
2. Use a good lens (the kit lens in my case), make sure your focus is good. Focusing is perhaps the hardest part of the whole operation.
3. Expose for a few minutes (I use 3 now) on a stable vibration free platform. You can shoot several exposures of the same length (and should). The more the better.
4. Your stable platform should be a good quality and well aligned mount, in my case, the LXD75 with the SN6 on it, camera riding on a bracket on the back. Your image is as good as your ability to keep it stable and tracking properly for the exposure duration. I view my object directly in my scope to check tracking.
4. Shoot a number of exposures on targets of the same length, use 2 or 3 minutes as a good starter. Cover the lens or whatever the camera is hooked to and shoot an equal number of dark frames of equal time which are used for subtracting the thermal noise from the images using software. Do this when you are done imaging what you want.
5. Load all the frames of your target object (lights and darks)in Deep Sky Stacker, stack them. DSS is a simple software package to use. Use the default settings, dig into the manual and online information for more help.
5. Take the final image and adjust it to your liking. I've recently began using PhotoShop and it makes it very simple to achieve pleasing results. PhotoShop is a world of its own, but it's basics have really helped me a lot.

This simple process will yield satisfying results, or at least it has for me.

About 4 weeks into this process, I am getting decent enough results to use as a basis for the hard part, which is working to achieve exceptional results. This is where it gets into precise polar alignment, much longer exposures, many more frames, learning how to use autoguiding, and learning a whole lot about post-processing. Start simple so you are not compounding your mistakes and wasting a lot of time making them.

I am amazed that I have gotten this far, and if I can do it, you can as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Constellation Imaging

I had to give this a shot to see how it would look, so I centered the scope on Orion and shot a sequence of 10 shots of Orion at 3 minutes, 55mm at f/5.6 and ISO 1600, and then selected the best 5 images to stack with Deep Sky Stacker for a total of 15 minutes of integration time. I've been advancing with my processing technique's having finally learned how to adjust some of the levels and obtain decent contrast and color, and this is evident in the results with Betelgeuse (upper left) and Rigel (lower right) showing some proper colors. In the larger image there is some red nebulosity visible in M42, the center star in the sword of Orion, although, as expected, the whole nebula is a little "blown out." This one has been a good learning experience and demonstrates some progress in what I am learning.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Dazzling Trio

The 3 belt stars in the constellation of Orion are perhaps one of the most recognized asterisms in the Winter sky. Many people are drawn to these 3 beauties almost immediately. Let's take a closer look at these 3 stars.

From left to right, the stars are named Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, and they are some of the brightest and hottest stars in the sky.

Alnitak is a triple star system, about 800 light years distant, and is sometimes referred to as Zeta Orionis, and the primary star is a class O type blue supergiant. In fact it is the brightest star of it's class visible in our night sky. It is 28 times more massive than our sun, and over 20 times larger. It's companion, Alnitak B is a B type star and orbits the primary once every 1500 years. Alnitak Ab, the third star is also an O type star and was only recently discovered. Nearby this star system is the flame nebula and the horesehead nebula.

Alnilam lies at a distance of 1000 light years and is referred to as Epsilon Orionis. It is a B type blue-white supergiant, and in spite of its farther distance than the other two, is actually the most powerful visible bright star in the sky. This star stands to turn into a red supergiant in about a million years and stands an excellent chance of becoming a supernova.

Mintaka is the right most star in the belt, and is also known as Delta Orionis. It is a multiple star system with a class B giant as the primary and a smaller but hotter class O as a secondary. The stars move very rapidly, orbiting each other about once every 5.7 days. One can only imagine the chaos in this region, some 900 light years distant.

So while we look at this configuration calmly and as a place of great beauty, it is one of the most cataclysmic regions in the heavens, both a stellar nursery and a graveyard, somewhere out on a spiral arm in our own Milky Way galaxy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Fair, The Bad, and The Ugly

I was pleased with the results of M45, 20 frames at 3 minutes each, ISO 800 at 55mm, f/5.6, the sky background came out reasonably clean, there is decent nebulosity, and the framing was about right. I had an enlargement made of this one and it looks good.

My M42 was imaged with 20 frames at 3 minutes each, ISO 800 at 55mm, f/5.6 as well, but I am displeased with the background on this one. I've tried processing it a couple of times, but I think the problems lies in my dark frames.

M31 is a nice target, but this photo does no justice to it. Shot 20 frames at 3 minutes each, ISO 800 at 55mm, f/5.6 and using the same dark frames as used with M42 above, this was very well placed in the sky, the night was perfectly clear with excellent seeing so I can't blame it on anything like that.

With practice, all of this will improve.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Much Needed Accessory

These little multi-target red dot finders are one of the most useful items I have found. So far I have purchased two of them, one for my binocular mount, and one for my telescope. Using them to sight a guide star is very useful in the dark when a crosshair is invisible.

So tonight I came up with a great idea. Someone should build an adapter to allow mounting one of these on the accessory shoe of a camera. This would greatly assist in sighting the camera when fastening it piggyback style on a telescope, simply because using the optical camera sight is near impossible and it is an inconvenience to align it.

Other applications that could be developed for this base would include a replacement dovetail that would fit the base for both Meade and Celestron telescopes. I consider these little items to be among the most valuable convenience items one can have while working in the dark.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nights Like Tonight

I've waited all week for this evening, knowing that my clear sky clock was blue through and through. The moon and weather just right, I took the scope out at 4PM. I installed a battery in my homemade powertank, put my mount on the marks, powered it up, did a reset, calibration and train drives, mounted the DSLR piggyback, focused it on Jupiter using the live view, and set out with a pad of paper to do some imaging and viewing. I prepped a pot of chili in the crockpot (good warm up food), brewed a pot of coffee, took the heating pad and a deck chair outside, and at dark I ran my alignment routines and got busy grabbing images.

The first image (above) is M31, shot with 10 lights at 2 minutes, 10 darks, and using a 55mm focal length at f/5.6 ISO 800 - I cropped and resized this image to obtain the best looking scale I could, and did some minimal processing using the Digital Photo Professional software included with the Canon XS.

The second image is the Double Cluster in Perseus shot with all the same information as above, cropped slightly and resized for posting purposes.

Finally I shot a sequence of photos of the Pleiades, again 20 minutes total exposure at f/5.6, 55mm, and I am completely shocked to see that it captured some of the region's blue nebulosity. This is one object that I will return to later and obtain much more frames just to see what I can do with it on a stock camera lens. Simply amazing to me.

It was really neat to sit back and watch it all work, scope performing flawlessly, a mix of viewing and imaging, all the electronics in action, everything doing well as planned, the perfect harmony of technology and beauty in action. I am so pleased with the way this all works and it's not an accident, it is exactly what I wanted and demonstrates the results of my grand plan. I refuse to become equipment laden and top heavy. I know what I like, I know what I don't want, and often simplicity and functionality trump everything, especially on a cold evening of astronomy. It has all come together, and I love it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Visit to Barren Fork Campground

I've waited all week to spend a little time at my favorite campground and check out the darkness of this place for camera work, and tonight I was not disappointed with the sky at all. Considering that the moon is less than ideal for astronomy tonight, this site really is wonderful because you can see the dust lanes in the milky way galaxy, M31 easily with the naked eye, even the North America nebula. In fact, it's hard to pick out the constellations, but fortunately I was raised on skys like this so for me, it's like going home, and it reminds me in a very humbling way why I really love the stars, and why I crave the absence of light pollution. Barren Fork campground is a primitive campground nestled in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest, and it's only about 10 minutes from home.
The image above is the teapot of Sagittarius, setting at the end of twilight. It is a single 30 second exposure shot at 55mm f/5.6, one dark frame subtracted in Deep Sky Stacker. I'd really like to get shots like this on my LXD75 equatorial mount to remove the trailing and so that I can add some density to my imaging, and if all goes well, tommorow evening will be my first attempts at doing just that when I piggyback my camera and go for it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Taming the Kitty Cat

After much anticipation I decided to try my hand at using my new Canon XS for some fixed tripod shots to learn how to use some of the camera and remote control features. I've had it for a few days and I've read the manual a bit, and last night I figured out how to set the exposure, ISO, turn on the live view and run the timer, so earlier this evening, under a full moon sky I shot ten 30 second shots of Jupiter with the lens set at f/4.0, 18mm focal length, ISO 800 to capture the image above, which was a simple JPEG. I have done no processing, just cropped it a bit to remove the house from the image. I shot these in RAW + JPEG, and I also shot 10 darks in the same format so I can play around with it a bit with some stacking software and see what results.

The second image is the constellation of Cassiopeia shot using the same settings with no cropping performed, however the moon was well up by now and lighting up the sky pretty well. It did give me a chance to see what to expect as far as focusing and using the live view feature and magnification to obtain focus. In the original images at full size you can see a bit of trailing on the stars, and on the image of Jupiter with some magnification you can even see one of the moons. I believe this will work very well piggybacking on the SN6 when I finally get the chance to test this under a good dark sky. That opportunity may come as early as this weekend.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Equipment Myth

There was a time a few years back when I had a very nice roll off roof observatory with a 10 inch equatorial mounted Cave telescope all set up for dual axis control and off axis guiding, with an 80mm f/4 piggybacked refractor. My observatory was equipped with a heater, variable red lighting, and doubled as a darkroom for processing film and printing images. I had a modern 35mm SLR equipped with all the goodies at this time. I spent many hours under the night sky in my observatory doing both visual and photographic astronomy, using a star atlas and a list of objects that I wanted to target. This was so long ago that using a computer was not even really an option, except to print lists of objects with their co-ordinates on a dot matrix printer. I shot plenty of film with that setup using Ektachrome 800, Fuji 400, Konica 1600, gas hypered Tech Pan 2415, and Kodak spectroscopic film. I thought I had the ultimate setup. You can see it in the photo at the top of my blog.

But years before this there was a time when my primitive gear included an old 35mm camera that my uncle had given me. The lens on this camera could not be removed, and the shutter on it was broken. You could cap the lens, load film in the camera, click to advance frames, etc, but the shutter would not close. I was 14 years old at the time, but I didn't let that stop me from enjoying it. I fixed it to a home made mounting, waited for a dark sky, and carefully removed the lens cap, each exposure carefully targeted. My darkroom consisted of an old kitchen that was completely dark but had running water, where I carefully developed the film in a tray in the dark using chemicals that I had mixed before. My telescope for visual usage at that time consisted of a 6 inch f/8 on a home made mount with no clock drive, a pier with a vacuum cleaner pipe stuffed with a wooden dowel, and a base from an old canister vacuum. I also had a 50mm alt-azimuth mounted "Sears special" refractor. And a star atlas, a notepad, and a red flashlight.

So here I am tonite, taking stock of where I am at, and I can't help but reflect on what an amazing thing this is. I just purchased my first DSLR, the Canon XS, for doing digital astrophotography, along with a T adapter for doing prime focus. I have my Meade 6 inch Schmidt Newtonian mounted on the LXD75 AutoStar equipped GoTo equatorial mount. I have a custom made accessory bracket on my tube cradle where I can mount my camera for tracked piggybacking, or another refractor. Sitting on the Orion Paragon HDF2 tripod next to this gear is my 15x70 astro binoculars. A quick release shoe removes them from the tripod and my camera snaps in place, and I am looking at this thinking how cool this is to have this little setup with so much flexibility. In my eyes, I have never had a setup that I like so much. But it strikes me that I am using a setup very similar to what I was using at 14 years of age, except that the technology of it all has improved everything immensely. I no longer have to mess with chemicals. I see the results of my images in minutes instead of hours. I tell the telescope where to point. The exposure time and information is controlled electronically. I can piggyback with the scope and view with the binoculars. Or I can do wide field tripod mounted imaging and view with the scope. It's light enough to go with me so I am not fixed in one spot. And my laptop is connected via wireless to the Internet and loaded with plenty of software to help me under the night sky.

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't this where I started?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

There Is No Mastery

I always admire the amateurs that spend incredible amounts of time imaging a single planet, or can spend extensive effort studying a few variable stars, or even the comet hunters who slave night upon night scanning the sky for nebulous objects that don't belong there.

For me, I have always been a divergent amateur. I prefer to investigate all aspects of the cosmos, from planetary viewing and imaging, to deep sky hunting, lunar observation, widefield and prime focus astrophotography. The tradeoff in all of this is you may not achieve mastery.

But approaching things this way has given me so much more in the hobby. I get a chance to really become familiar with various areas of the sky. Following a comet in its path around the sky night after night introduces one to learning the constellations and stars in ways that one would normally not conduct. Traversing the planets in their retrograde motions gives one a sense of the revolution of the Earth itself in space. Chasing deep sky objects has given me a feel for seeing conditions in ways that go absolutely beyond measuring it with a number. And imaging deep sky objects has given me a feel for all that cannot be seen visually when I am scanning out there.

I think most amateurs are like me, interested in a more general perspective on the hobby in general. They are wanting to maximize the use of the scopes they have without investing a tremendous amount of money on gear designed for single purpose usage. It doesn't make them any less knowledgeable about the night sky. Many large telescopes at institutions around the world are targeting objects with instrumentation specifically to study a narrow portion of an objects existence. None of us have the financial resources to compete with that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Taking the Traditional Approach

One of the benefits of technology is that we can remove many trivial tasks involved in practicing our hobby. We might use an online service or planetarium package to point us directly to what is visible right now. Using an electronic telescope with GPS alignment, we place the scope outside, click a switch and it aligns itself automatically. No thought is given to directions, motions in the heavens, visibility conditions, etc. If we are doing astrophotography, we don't have to track exposure times, and autoguiders which remove the chore of manually correcting for errors which we used to track on our own. Those little things we did by hand taught us about a lot of things going on with our equipment. We didn't second guess the behaviour, we learned first hand.

For old timers like myself, many of these technological things are a great bonus because they have enhanced the things we do under the night sky. We have grown with them and they have merely become an extension of what we do. They didn't replace the old ways, they added to them.

But for newcomers to the hobby, they are the norm. They have been born into an era where they cannot imagine doing things without them. Even the owners of computerized Dobsonian's are becoming disadvantaged by all this technology. If you can read a bubble level and you know two stars, you no longer have to identify faint fuzzy objects using a computerized object locator. Image intensifier viewers can even provide one with artificial eyes to enhance viewing. What's next? Video displays of the finder scope? Remote access? Telescopes that can automatically locate alignment stars? No, these things are already here.

I offer a challenge. Put away all of your electronics and computers. Grab a star atlas. If you don't own one, print one online. Use a book and plan your evening based around the constellations that are visible. Figure that out by calculating the siderial time. Research the locations of the objects you are viewing. Develop star hopping techniques to a few objects. Record your observations with pencil and paper. Put away the sky quality meter and use the circumpolar stars to judge the sky conditions. If you don't know what a word means, look it up. Try shooting the sky with your old 35 mm camera and some film. Find your latitude using a map. Use it to calculate how low your southern sky is visible on an atlas. Do this by learning about the celestial sphere and Right Ascension and Declination. Develop your observing techniques based around your observations instead of someone else's.

If you do these things and practice them on a regular basis, you will develop techniques that will allow you to enjoy the night sky using any telescope of any aperture, including something like the old amateur standard, the equatorial mounted 6 inch f/8 Newtonian reflector telescope.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Those Little Things

For those of you who have been following my blog, which is my personal adventure with the hobby, you remember my experience with shipping my Cave 10 inch telescope. Well after that dream died, I remembered all my other smaller things in Canada and had a bunch of books and notes shipped to me in 2 shipments. I am really thrilled to get my logbooks, astronomy lessons from the classes I taught and more.

The entry pictured intrigued me because I remembered the evening only after reading the notes, some 24 years later. But what amazes me is the deep down love I had for the whole experience of doing deep sky astronomy even back then. Here I am, a 23 year old guy, still with sharp eyes making observations with a high quality instrument under the darkest of sky conditions available in the world. My earliest recorded observations go back years before this too, so taking notes and writing logs is not a new experience. What we don't see in this photo is pages 3 and 4 where we go on to do some planetary viewing, viewing Uranus, the polar cap on Mars, and Saturn, and the end of the evening in morning twilight. Without these notes, all of this would have been forgotten.

My favorite journal is nothing but a coil bound notebook. Record things like time, temperature, sky conditions, observing location, equipment, and then begin to document what you are seeing. Make detailed notes of what you are observing. Don't worry about accuracy in terms of a comparison with what you should be seeing, but rather record what you are actually seeing. They may not seem important to you at the time, but the devil is in the details. Be as descriptive as possible. You can use adjectives, you are not being graded on this. Record your emotions, failures, frustrations, successes, telescope struggles, etc.

I have the Cave listed to sell. But in reading this, I realize only now how fantastic this telescope really is, how we varied magnifications, its resolving power, its abilities as a planetary scope, and the thrill of Halley, something that my eyes will never live to see again. Equipment can always be replaced, but the experiences at the eyepiece can never be regained, unless you choose to preserve them. And I have not spoken to my friend Dave in over 23 years, so I am going off on a quest via the net to locate him, and to test his interest in astronomy once again.

Taking notes is not a huge investment, and is actually a great way to improve the experience of doing astronomy. Don't worry about the technical side of it, organizing it, etc. Let what you record be a reflection of where you are at, and it will carry you forward in the years ahead. Only now, some years later, am I actually going through my notes making a list of all the things I have seen. One of these days we have to get organized around here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adjusting my LXD75 Mount

Meade's little medium duty LXD75 GoTo mount is a nice little mount, but it's not without it's idiosyncrasies. Tonight, after reading about it on the net, I decided to tackle the little bit of lash in the Right Ascension axis. I removed the motor assembly by removing the 3 hex headed screws. I finally located the 3rd screw which is found right above the latitude adjuster coming into the assembly from the backside. Once inside, it exposes an aluminum gear and an adjustment with a collet and locking nut to check side to side play on the worm, as well as 3 adjusting screws to position the worm closer to the worm gear, I did a slight adjustment on these 3 screws, 2 outside first and then the middle one, checking for the tightness of the gear by rotating the worm assembly and checking for play. If you over tighten the worm you will have issues with motor's jamming so one must be careful with this. It only takes a very small adjustment to make it right.

I then set the scope up outside and proceeded to polar align it and I am still a bit off. Also I should have done a few other things which I didn't do but will. I need to do a reset, calibrate motors and train drives since I have changed all of the lash adjustments, but that will wait for another night with more time. The moon was coming up a bit after 9 PM and I thought I would get in some DSO's before then, so I checked out M31 and M13 and found the accuracy to be acceptable, all things considered. A more accurate polar alignment and a drive calibration will fix things more than adequately. I also tested the high precision feature in the mount and found it to be perfectly acceptable, and only a little annoying to have to constantly center an alignment star. I adjusted and used my red dot finder for the first time this evening and it worked out alright.

Honestly I can't imagine what this mount would be like with a larger OTA and some accessories on it, I think it performs best when it's not overloaded at all.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moonbow Astronomy Program

Once a month I help out with a public star party at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in SE Kentucky. This event is always well attended and offers a chance for many folks to have their first experience with astronomy. I have been working at this event for some 7 months now. Cumberland Falls is the "Niagra of the South" and is the only natural waterfall left in the world that still offers a "moonbow", visible during a full moon weekend. Our public events are held on the Saturday evening of the new moon every month, and if you are in the area, please come and visit us.

Some time back, the park obtained an LX90 ACF just like the one pictured. It is a beautiful telescope and is loaded with all kinds of electronics including a GPS. For several months we have been frustrated with getting it to work properly, but this past Sunday, after consulting with some others, we did a firmware flash to replace a bug-ridden version that it came pre-installed with. Hopefully this will fix some alignment and tracking issues and fully allow us to realize the potential of this great scope.

This past month, we did a 3 hour cooldown on this scope and the views we obtained of Jupiter through fleeting clouds was nothing short of amazing. It would give me great pleasure to finally be able to attain some of the many DSO's that are loaded in this hand controller and be able to provide some real treats to the people who attend our events.

The great irony of this is that this is the telescope that got me back interested in doing astronomy once again, when it wouldn't work properly and I kind of assumed making it work for us. This is just another fine example of what experience can do for you, and how the old ways can bail you out when the new technologies don't quite live up to everything they are supposed to. It still pays to learn things the way we did it as kids.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What's Wrong With Today's Amateur

It’s been a while since I posted anything this controversial but I really feel that some things must be said. After many years in this hobby, there are just some things that are happening that really are issues that need to be addressed. These issues have all contributed to a loss of overall skill in amateurs today and are fundamentally changing the hobby from one of amateur scientist into one of space tourism.

1.Top Heavy – many amateurs are of the assumption that telescope gear must be high-end large aperture gear to extract enjoyment from the hobby. From the eyepiece elitists, to the imaging fanatics, many are of the impression that in order to extract quality results one must invest astronomical sums of money. Complete nonsense. Many of these things still come down to one thing – skill. And skill comes with practice, and if all you have ever used is high-end gear you are really at a complete disadvantage. My friends who are vested in this hobby make their own eyepieces, lenses and mirrors and extract just as much pleasure from their telescopes as the ones who will spend ten times the amount of money, possibly even more because they know how they actually work.

2.Dob Mentality – for all the good things that the Dobsonian mount has brought to amateur astronomy, namely portability, simplicity and the ability to mount a large OTA without a large mount, a counterproductive trend has taken place. The idea that ones needs large aperture and the mount is secondary has created limits that were unseen on what amateurs can actually do. Many of them have no concept of Right Ascension or Declination, basically it has turned the hobby into a form of hunting in the sky instead of an art to the movement of the heavens themselves, and an intricate understanding of our own location in the galaxy, because once you know how the heaven’s move, you begin to understand the distribution of the galaxy itself. You are no longer hunting for an object as a space tourist, but rather you are on a deeper quest for the why instead of the what.

3.Technology Dependent – I love my GoTo scope very much. For me, GoTo is a set of setting circles hooked to a handheld catalog driven by a couple of motors to assist in moving my scope. Some folks love PushTo – basically the same thing minus the motors. But these tools have removed newcomers from many important things, the most important of which is looking at the sky, studying an Atlas, digging into books to make lists, and understanding the constellations themselves and their place in the sky. Give many of these amateurs a pair of binoculars and they will struggle with where to begin. Without their PDA’s, laptops, Stellarium, etc, they would not know which constellation to begin with, the lowest point of their observing limits, etc. If you have to dig in a book to find it, you organize it, memorize it, master it, build on it, etc. Technology has made us lazy. If you need proof, look at an 8th grade math class and take away the calculators.

4.Critical thinking – if everyone is thinking the same, it defines a limit not only on growth but on the potential for new ideas as well. By expanding your base level of knowledge about things as simple as types of mounts, optical layouts, craftsmanship, etc, you are more apt to innovate, to master what you have, and to extract more from it. Thinking outside of the box is what has made this hobby greater, and many of those great ideas are right in front of us.

5.Discipline – astronomy is not one of those hobbies that can be mastered overnight. There is continual growth in this hobby in every single direction one looks. If you are a visual observer, there are techniques to practice and develop, books to read, logbooks to keep, and a methodological approach to learning the sky one constellation at a time. If you have the discipline and patience to take this approach, the things you are learning build and develop. As iron sharpeneth iron, discipline sharpens the countenance of one’s astronomical knowledge.

This is just the way I see it. I should write an app for that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everyday Astronomy

To some people, the only time that they enjoy astronomy is when they are actually using their telescope, so I thought I would offer up some tips on things to do on any evening and still enjoy their hobby.

1. Visit the library - A trip to the library can be a revealing experience in this hobby. There are several sections that one can enjoy and still gain insights into the hobby, from the pure science collection of books on astronomy, to the areas of space exploration, UFO's, videos, on through the science encyclopedias, to the periodicals section, most every library has a diverse selection of materials to keep one's mind occupied in an ongoing way. No matter how much you learn, there is always more out there. You may also inquire about inter library loans if your library doesn't have a certain book you are looking for. My favorite libraries to visit are the ones of higher learning found in Colleges and Universities.

2. Cull the Internet - More material than you can imagine on the internet at any given time to read. Make sure you use your favorites menu, organize your collections of websites by category, eg...astrophotography, blogs, telescopes, astronomy forums, etc. I use the internet for everything from exchanging with others to collection printable materials for hard reference.

3. Build an Observing Handbook - You can use the internet and some plastic sleeving and find all kinds of usable and freely redistributable materials that you can print out to create the ultimate reference collection for use at the eyepiece or the kitchen table alike.

4. Decorate a Room - Have a favorite hobby center where you keep your telescope, a spare bedroom, a man cave? Find printable astro images that you can capture on a flash drive, visit a photo lab, have them enlarged and printed, frame them and decorate a wall. You don't have to photograph your own images to enjoy them, and many amateurs will allow you to print copies of their images for your own personal use. They make a great conversation piece for guests, and help put your hobby into perspective for others as well as yourself.

5. Join a Club - Make a point of being involved. Volunteer to clean the grounds, maintain the observatory, organize their materials, do handyman work, go out for coffee with other members. The more energy one puts into the organization brings others to join in, and soon it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore. And you also get that sense of accomplishment.

These are just a few ideas, but this is enough to get anyone started on finding ways to enjoy a lifetime of amateur astronomy. Down the road I will add others to this collection because, honestly, I never run out of things to do with this hobby or ideas to do more. I just run out of time to do them all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Basic Piggyback Astrophotography

Here is a photo of my SN6 on the LXD75 mount along with it's custom built accessory bracket shown with my Minolta X-370 35mm SLR mounted on it in piggyback mode. This is my entry level deep sky imaging system.

How often do we read that astrophotography is hard, expensive, and really cannot be mastered without a lot of time and effort. If this was the truth, many people, myself included would have never ventured into attempting it in the first place. Yes astrophotography takes some time to learn, and yes, at the upper end prime focus and afocal methods of imaging, it can become a bit more complex as guiding and mount stability become issues that limit the quality of the images one can produce.

But piggybacking a camera on an equatorial mount is actually a very enjoyable method of learning deep sky imaging, and is neither difficult nor time consuming and can produce some excellent results. Any mount that can track images in a scope fairly accurately will suffice for a setup like the one pictured, which uses a 50mm lens at f/2. Accurate polar alignment is important to avoid field rotation, and with lenses of focal length greater than 200mm, guiding may become an issue as well. But using modern technology, it is possible to simply use the main scope as a guidescope using something like the Meade LPI or DSI (I, II, or III) using PHD guiding if that becomes necessary.

Beginning with a setup like this will deliver you very satisfactory results. I have been using this type of setup for years using high speed film and have produced excellent images of the Milky Way and its structure, and I plan on using the exact same setup with my DSLR to produce similar and better results.

I encourage others who are interested to begin this way and give deep sky imaging a try.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Population II Amateur Astronomer

How would you feel if you went to bed one night and woke up the next day in a strange and alien world? All your preconceived notions about gravity, physics, the daily operation of life had suddenly changed?

Recently I got into a debate about focal ratio and I thought I knew what I was talking about. I'm an old school amateur raised on old school ways with lots of formulas and a strict adherence to laws governing systems and how they operate. All of this was predictable.

Well apparently the rules have changed when it comes to light collection technology and focal ratio no longer determines how a CCD collects light. The only thing that matters is aperture and because of the nature of sky glow and the efficiency of detection technology, slower scopes may actually be more efficient because they collect more total photons due to integration time. I find it absolutely mind-boggling that something so rooted and perfect is suddenly tipped upside down and forever destroyed, to be relegated to obsolesence, supplanted by superior advancements in technology.

I know that this may have little impact on your world, and if you are new to this the old ideas may not even be relevant because you have never experienced them. But I somehow can't leave this without taking one last jab at these hot young imaging experts - the real world real dollar value of a 400 lb Astrola mounted 10 inch f/7 Cave just went up fourfold. It's time to dust off the relics because what is old is still what is new.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Road Ahead

I am really wanting to get into doing deep sky photography again. The more I read about imaging, the more confusing it all seems, and in some ways, this is a quantum leap from the grand old days of focus, guide and print. I am wanting to invest in a Canon DSLR and begin simply by doing some widefield imaging piggybacking a camera on the SN6. The basics of it all seem pretty straightforward, but as I read more and more of the technical side of aquiring images, flats, darks, lights, etc, this all looks like a lot of learning with software, and software is something that I really need to spend more time learning.
I'm not one to be intimidated by technical things, but I have to make a beginning somwhere, and this seems like a logical step. And besides, I need a decent digital camera anyways, so this gives me a chance to cover my bases and get back into the things I enjoy.
I really feel that if I can learn this, anyone can.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Your Basic Powertank

Here is the new powertank that I built today. Most commercial units cost about the same but after reading all the stories about the short battery life on them, I decided I would rather make my own. Equipment to make one includes 1 Group 24 Battery Box (Walmart), 1 3 LED Clearance Light (Walmart), 1 inline blade fuse holder (Walmart), 1 toggle switch (Advance Auto), 1 weatherpoof 12 volt receptacle (Parts City), and 2 color coded battery terminals (Advance Auto). I've not put a battery in mine yet but will be choosing the Walmart 75 amp hour deep cycle to install in mine. The light is wired into the toggle switch so it can be turned on and off as needed. The purpose of the light is to provide some visibility to the scope and equipment when people are around or near the telescope, and to assist in setup and teardown. This little unit will give me all the power I need for running the scope, and a dew heater, and I have designed it to allow for additional 12 volt outlets to be added. This unit will be wired into my camper's solar system and kept charged fully at all times. No more trips to the store once a month to buy $10 worth of battery's. And with power to spare, it improves the ability of the slewing motors to perform smoothly in the Winter months.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Aligning a GoTo Equatorial Mount

The above diagram indicates the general layout of the mechanics of the night sky. If you projected a line through the Earth from the south pole to the north pole, and on into space, that line would appear to point directly at Polaris, or as we commonly call it, the north star.

All of the stars in the northern hemisphere rotate around Polaris during the course of the evening due to the Earth's rotation. To counteract this, one needs only line the Right Ascension axis of the equatorial mount at this magical center point, and all movements can be counteracted by turning the telescope on one axis. The Right Ascension axis is the one that is connected to the tripod. The one that is connected to the telescope and the counterweight shaft is the Declination axis. Every object in the sky has a co-ordinate given in hours, minutes and seconds of Right Ascension, and degrees, minutes, and seconds of Declination. Objects above the celestial equator have positive degrees of Declination and objects below have minus degrees of Declination. You go from 0 to 90, and 0 to -90 degrees going north of the celestial equator and then south of the celestial equator respectively. There are 24 hours of Right Ascension in a full circle.

You can do a simple alignment of your astronomical telescope's mount by placing the mount with the counterweight down, tube up. Now rotate the telescope until the tube is exactly in line with the Right Ascension, or polar, shaft of the mount. You can turn the base of the telescope in azimuth until it is in line with Polaris, and then finally, adjust the latitude setting on the equatorial head until the telescope is directly aimed at Polaris. This is the most simple method of polar aligning a telescope, and is sometimes called the home position on GoTo equatorial mounts.
Once you have roughly aligned the scope, you can use the hand controller to pick two stars, center them in the field of view, and hit enter to tell the electronics that you are pointed at them. Aligning a GoTo mount is really this easy, and once you've done it once, you can remember how to do it time and time over.

Another far more precise method uses the declination drift method, where you choose stars near the celestial equator both at the meridian, and at the eastern horizon. I first discovered this method in a 1977 Sky and Telescope article by Robert Provin on doing precision astrophotography. It has never let me down. You need a reticle eyepiece to do this, and you only move the telescope in Right Ascension to do this. The longer you can keep the star from drifting, the more precisely aligned your telescope will be. This method works great in an observatory, even when you can't see Polaris.

First, choose your star near where the celestial equator (i.e. at or about 0ยบ in declination) and the meridian meet. The star should be approximately 1/2 hour of right ascension from the meridian and within about five degrees in declination of the celestial equator. Center the star in the field of your telescope and monitor the drift in declination.
•If the star drifts south, the polar axis is too far east.
•If the star drifts north, the polar axis is too far west.
Using the telescope's azimuth adjustment knobs, make the appropriate adjustments to the polar axis to eliminate any drift. Once you have eliminated all the drift, move to the star near the eastern horizon. The star should be 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon and within five degrees of the celestial equator.
•If the star drifts south, the polar axis is too low.
•If the star drifts north, the polar axis is too high.
The closer those stars are to the celestial equator, the more accurately your mount can be aligned. For long term use in an observatory, I will let it drift for 90 minutes, but you can speed this process up a lot by using a barlow lens because it really amplifies the drift. Remember to only make corrections in Right Ascension while doing this.

Some people like Dobsonian mounts. I have only ever used equatorial mounts, first without tracking, then with tracking, and finally with GoTo, which I absolutely love. Doing this simple procedure can let you see thousands of objects without frustration, and let you focus on enjoying your scope, rather than tracking it around the sky. I don't find an equatorial mount confusing in the least, either to operate or find objects with. Merely using one can teach you how objects appear to move in the night sky, much like the drawing above depicts. So before you go out and buy that big yard cannon that everyone recommends to newcomers, you might consider the convenience of having and using an equatorial mount. If you are going to do any kind of astrophotography, it is the only way to go. My blog's record is proof of that. If an 8 year old can use one without tracking, you can learn too. It really can deliver you a lifetime of amateur astronomy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Touring the Galaxy with GoTo

Tonite I decided the sky conditions were superb for a last summer blast of some of the finest objects in the Milky Way galaxy. I headed out a little after 8 PM and set up the scope to give it a little time to adjust, which it has little problems with. The night was cool and bug free, and clearer than I have seen it since I got my telescope. After I got it aligned, I worked on a small list of objects that were unfinished from my last dark sky evening. I viewed M22, M25, M28 and M70, all globular star clusters. The area around the heart of the galaxy, the halo, is rich with these old objects, and each one is slightly different. I used only one eyepiece tonight, the 18mm Ortho delivering approximately 42x.

I went on to view a variety of objects including M92gc, M13gc, M7oc, M8 (Lagoon), M15gc, M27 (Dumbell), M20 (Trifid), M17 (Swan), M11 (Wild Duck), M31 (Andromeda galaxy), M16, and M32. I also pointed the scope at Neptune and could pick out it's color, and took a look at Jupiter, which was unusually crisp this evening.

All in all it was a good Monday evening, and I am inside and heading to bed at a reasonable hour.

Image is M20 - the Trifid Nebula - courtesy of Gemini Observatory/AURA

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Trek in Sagittarius

My binoculars have sat alone in a corner for a couple of months now ever since I got the scope. But last Friday night, and again Saturday I went out with them not wanting to pack the scope out in sub-seeing conditions and have been rewarded with some spectacular views in Sagittarius, including at least M25, M24, M7, the wild duck cluster and the butterfly cluster. It is very relaxing to take the tripod mounted 15x70's out and pan the lower portions of the milky way without having to crane my neck, seated in a chair with a comfortable height. I have the red dot finder spot on, so I turn it on dim and pan, and after finding something I can correlate it with my planetarium software and confirm what I am looking at with the reticle on the starfield. I am going to coin this as non-targeted astronomy, as opposed to doing deliberate targeted astronomy.

I was honestly wondering if I would use my binoculars much after getting the scope. But nights like these have reminded me that if I treat it as a specialty instrument and use it the way it was intended, it can be an excellent addition to doing GoTo/Telescope viewing and imaging. 15x70's are spectacular for browsing the milky way but I wouldn't want to hold them in my hand.

An earlier post alluded to using binoculars to view the Milky Way's finest objects and I have not been disappointed. This is really the first time I have experienced Sagittarius at latitude 36 degrees, the last time having optical assistance I was at latitude of 50 degrees, and the 14 degree difference is stunning.

Use everything you have....just enjoy astronomy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Beginning with Jupiter

I've been experimenting with the Meade LPI and thought I would make a second attempt at Jupiter with some adjustments. I believe that my focus is a little off, and I lack the focal length to really increase image scale. Jupiter was a bit low in the sky when I shot these and I did not stack them myself, but rather let Envisiage do the stacking setting the quality up a bit higher. The seeing was not really great visually either.

You can see 3 of Jupiters moons, and these photos were taken on the evening of August 13 at approximately 11:00 PM EDT. It's going to be a lot harder to image Jupiter than I've seen in some photos. Especially at a focal length of 762 mm and f/5. I may experiment and mask the scope down a bit to see what I can do to sharpen the image. I hope to have better photos down the road.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What Happens at Astronomy Club Meetings

Last night a club that I belong to held an astronomy club meeting. For the second time in 2 months I decided to skip the meeting.
For many years I have been in an astronomy club of one form or another. They are a great place to get out and meet people with similar interests and share ideas. What usually does not happen however is a lot of common observation time. Often times there are fundraisers, public open houses, tour groups, not to mention the countless hours of volunteer work maintaining a facility.
So I've decided to forgo the groups for now. My interest is in observing. I don't need the headaches of dealing with all the extras required to keep everyone happy. Our club is small, and meets in the basement of a members house. Our time is occupied watching TiVo'd reruns from the Discovery channel. I can do that at home, and save the gas. I think with a group like this, the best thing we can do is have a montly agreement to meet in a field somewhere if it is clear and bring our telescopes. There is no facility to maintain.
I'm open to new ideas for how to improve an astronomy club, and make meetings more meaningful. I'm at the point where I don't even want to go anymore, but my interest in astronomy is stronger than ever.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ex Luna Lux LPI

"From the Moon, Light via LPI"

This image is my first ever digital image, taken with the Meade LPI. It shows Mare Imbrium and Plato, Archimedes and Aristotle (craters). I shot this 2 days from full and was trying to capture the terminator, always a challenge when the moon is this bright.

Imaging with Envisiage is completely different from using 35 mm film, which was how I used to do this. Before we would bracket our exposures and wait days, and be at the mercy of the labs chemistry and density selections, that is, if the camera remained stable when the shutter opened. No more "hat tricks." Now with the PC, we have complete control over how the end result appears. I processed this a little using JASC Photo and cropped it a bit at the same time. I have tons to learn and lots of time to do it all.

It's not much, but I did it myself. It's good to be back in the imaging field again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Law of Universal Expansion

One of the most interesting things about this forum is watching people grow, from asking that first question, to getting a new scope that they have chosen based on advice, to asking more questions, to the frustrations and the joys alike, it's just awesome to watch people grow. I've been around this hobby for a lot of years, and at one point I actually was bored with it, I had flatlined so to speak. But I think that CN has rekindled my interest a lot and the friendships I have made with people here are so invaluable. Where else can I go and talk with so many like minded people about things as mundane as mesquitos to scope selection, the joys and frustrations of the weather, a good nights viewing, etc.

I think when you really begin to appreciate the people here and the good advice that they have you begin to learn and develop that brain/eye/affective connection, new things open with the hobby and there is no room for boredom. When I am not working I live, breathe and enjoy astronomy in so many ways beyond just getting out under the night sky. I can see all of you with your scopes doing likewise, the variation between each instrument, and almost half-predict your frustrations with some things at times. To me, that is the ultimate appreciation of the hobby.

I don't recommend one scope over another for any reason than the individual using it. I think picking a telescope is a very personal decision. I think we all learn from our joys and frustrations alike and use that to learn from. I think I could do astronomy with ANY telescope, but doing astronomy with the telescope that minimizes all of those frustrations should be an important goal. How ambitious are you? How willing are you to endure the frustrations to achieve said goal? And when you do go through it, and get to the other side, are you willing to experience that feeling of this all being worthwhile? For me, it certainly is.

One of the reasons I write this blog is to share those personal experiences with you all, so that you can see what this is all about. You can see that there is no prize at the end, it just keeps growing and growing. It is the law of universal expansion in action.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Passing the Hobby to Others

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on how infectious this hobby can be, and how we often fail to realize how we all impact others in this hobby.

Just this evening, I received an email from a gentleman who was a childhood mentor of mine, and who came along at just the right place and time to have an impact in my passion for astrophotography. I was 14 years old at the time, and highly influential and eager to learn, and he was someone I have always looked up to for his experitise in the area. To hear from him really made my day, and likewise as he stated.

Yet if I look back at all the people I have influenced, I can see a long line as well. At age 13, when I received my first "real" telescope, I would set it up down on the road in front of my house. I grew up with a fellow by the name of Brad, and him and I would use this to look at the moon and planets. I know he got a real kick out of this and he later went on to become a chemistry professor at the local college, and also joined the club where he is still a member to this day.

And then I look at other friends, just guys I used to hang around with like Roger, Joe and Mark, a small circle of guys. All three of them would go on to join the club and become esteemed amateurs in their own right. Joe spent many years as the President of the organization and maintained an active interest in doing astronomy, and has completed the Messier catalog using nothing more than a telrad and a sky atlas. Roger worked in media and information technology and has created a huge electronic library of astronomy resources. Mark has likely read every single book on astronomy that can be purchased and is extremely knowledgeable in most anything one wants to know.

The bottom line here is that this is not about me. This is about how we affect those around us with our infectious love of this hobby, and how we, through our own enthusiasm pass this along to the next one in line. This is an interactive hobby, and a very human experience to share the wonders of space with new blood. None of us are so far up that we cannot remember the beginning, and the thrill of learning something new, no matter how small, or how trivial because we are building a foundation on which to build and grow into this hobby. We never stop growing because we began with something we knew we could never be larger than. It is my hope that we always remember that.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What Walter Saw

With the passing of Walter Cronkite on July 17,2009, part of the history of the 20th century also passes on. Walter was born in 1916. And he was one of the biggest fans of space travel in the country at a time when it was far from many people's minds. He once commented that space travel may very well be the one thing future generations would look back and remember about the history of the 20th century.

Stop and think of all that this man saw. He was born before much of the modern theory of astronomy was known. In fact our limits of knowledge did not really go beyond the milky way galaxy. There were 8 planets. The largest telescope in the world was only 100 inches in diameter. Nuclear energy existed only on paper. The first great war was over and the second had not begun. There were no satellites. The sky he saw was completely free of all light pollution. His generation could look up at the sky and see places that nobody had ever been, and only imagine that one day, perhaps, going there was possible.

Yet he saw so much. From the development of the first rockets as a front line reporter, through to the dawn of the space age, the cold war rockets, to the Sputnik's, the failures, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. He saw the headlines when Pluto was discovered, when the cosmos grew to include galaxies, onto the Voyager probes, the discovery that ringed planets abounded, and moons held secrets that few could only imagine. He was a huge fan of space and science, and his only claim was as a witness of the history before his eyes. He remained awestruck with mankinds achievements and held an optimism for our future in space.

It must have been an awesome life to live. For if we are to go this far, this fast ever again, then the world our children will see will be vastly different from the one they live on today - they simply won't be living here. Walter never believed for a second that this was not possible, nor should we.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuning In to Tune Out

Tonite I went outside for a bit with the scope. I had taken it out and gotten it all ready for alignment and cooldown and was just sitting there watching as the first stars began to appear in a blue sky. When I was younger, this was all taken for granted, you know, the sun sets, the stars come out, bright ones first then as the sky blackens you see more and more until you reach mag 6.

But the last few times, or should I say, since I came back to the hobby, as I sit out there watching all of this happen, a lot of weird thoughts come through my mind. Thoughts like, you know, this is amazing how we can see these suns of other worlds in a complete blue sky. Those must be some huge suns. And that our day star is merely brighter than the other stars, and how its presence blots out the ability to discern the other suns. Then my mind wanders to those planetary civilizations who are part of multiple star systems, who may not have a night, and may not be able to even perceive that there is a universe out there, whose systems of time are completely different from our own. For it is the rotation of the earth that determines the sky we see, the lack of a sun in the sky that allows us to see it. Suddenly each of these pinpoints of light that are becoming visible suddenly become that much more important, and what I do on Tuesday that much less. I feel a connection with the cosmos that is not only familiar, it's literally the neighborhood, to know where to find Vega, Spica, Arcturus, etc, and to know a little about each of those places.

As the sky darkens and the telescope slews to its targets, and some special visiting points of interest are revealed I am amazed at how much is out there. I am intrigued at the thought that visually, this may be a treat, but in reality, this is some huge thing, so distant, that it's not merely a point of interest, it is something even larger than our own solar system. Lately I have taken a liking to star clusters, remnants of birth, of age, and wonders of beauty with stars of incredible anonimity. The significance of this all is very humbling. In it all, it's hard to even comprehend that I am a living part of the universe, actually comprehending it discretely and seperately.

Sights numberous, M57, M27, M5, the Lagoon, Trifid and more. The wonders of the summer milky way never cease to amaze.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Evening of Real Astronomy

A couple of us travelled tonite and went to a public star party armed with my glp and his homemade 6 inch Cave scope on a dobsonian mount.

We arrived in daylight as some of the folks who had volunteered their scopes for the event showed up. There was a large LX200 (12 inch) monster on a Meade fork, a nice C11 on a Losmandy G11, a homemade 10 inch dob having a telrad on it and the absolute filthiest mirror I had ever seen, a 13.1 inch homemade Dob with chunks missing from the mirror's coating, some 10 x50 binocs on a homemade parallelogram, a classic 8" Meade SCT on the old standard fork/wedge, and I think a Meade LX90. I gathered around like a kid in a candy shop eyeballing every detail I could gather about every scope there, asking questions, talking to the owners, just trying to feel it out.

Got to all but touch an actual moon rock (it was encased in plastic) and made some friends. As darkness descended the main organizer began a nice powerpoint show on 400 years of the telescope, and then everyone kinda began to make their way around to all the telescopes. I was KICKIN' myself for not bringing mine, but next time I will know better.

Anyways I spent a bit of time with the scope we brought and I lined it up on Saturn while the show was going on, and the moon. This Cave thing had a crappy Orion right angle finder on it that was all but completely useless and out of focus, but I did my best with it and was showing off M13 to some visitors and pointing out some constellations and stars with the GLP. I finally got around to seeing what everyone else was viewing, and although I got some nice views of the moon, it seemed such a waste to take such high dollar stuff out to show the moon only. When I finally got to the guy with the telraded dob, he was showing Alberio so I had a look and later M57. You can tell this guy uses his unpainted sonotube creation. It was a practical setup.

I had a good time, but I learned that the guy with the fancy scope is not always the one having the most fun. I learned that experience trumps money, and the guy who built his own scope masters his own scope. I also found out that you never take high dollar eyepieces for public viewings, it amazed me how people abused some of them when they were not supervised, I guarantee none of them had their Naglers out tonite. You can spot the people who use their equipment and know the sky for sure. For me it was just another night doing it the old way - no telrad again, and a lousy finder to boot.

I had a blast. I didn't miss my new scope, but the connections I made tonite were very worthwhile and I will be back when we do it again in August with scope and binocs, etc. The more I think about it, the less I want to be involved in one club and just be mobile joining several and taking in nights much like tonite. Life is too short to sit in club meetings and squable over fundraising to pay the insurance on a facility that nobody uses - just get out and do astronomy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

LXD75 SN6 First Light

Mount: Meade LXD75 with Autostar
OTA: Meade 6 inch f/5 Schmidt Newtonian

The telescope arrived early in the day and I had plenty of time to set it up since I am on vacation for a bit. Carefully unpacking the mount first, setting it up was intuitive. I had read the manual that I downloaded a few times and that made it easier. One thing that would be nice is if the telescope came with a DVD demonstrating assembly, alignment, correct optical placement of the tube, various accessories, etc. It's time to think modern, if a carb can come packaged with one surely to goodness something as worthy as a telescope should. It might create less phone calls to Meade down the line for troubleshooting issues as well. I took it outside and aligned the finder on a distant object just to have it ready for nightfall.

About 10 mins before sunset I set it out on the pad that I had built just for it to let it thermally adjust. As the sky darkened enough to see polaris, I went through the motions of using the built in polar alignment tool, and I really like the fine adjustments to the equitorial head in altitude and azimuth, it makes it very simple. I also marked the pad where my legs sat so setting up again should be a breeze.

At 10 PM, well before astronomical twilight I began. I did the easy alignment with the Autostar, and carefully adjusted the objects by leaving them defocused to allow for better centering. Regulus was behind a tree, but a simple scroll let me find a star that was visible, and the mount was ready. I told the scope to move to M13. Here was the big test to see how accurate it could be. Right in the center - call it beginners luck. I'd been down this road before on the LX90 and after two targets you were on your own. Seeing as how I was viewing in a blue sky still, I thought I'd try a few more just to check alignment. M92 - dead on. Let's try M4, it's half a sky away, dead on - I can see the bar, then off to M57, holy smoke rings, there it is. It's not even 10:30, and the sky still has some blue left. So I did what any amateur would do, I came inside, baked a pizza and made a list of things to check out. I thought I had made a pretty good list with 12 objects on it, including M39, M29, NGC 7000, M51, M3, M5 M14, M10, M12, M71, M8 and M81/82. If I could see all of those, that would be a miracle. But time after time, and without impediment, this mount slewed to each one of those selections and put them dead in the eyepiece. Having completed that list, I did the Tonite's Best Tour and checked out Albireo, Altair, the Butterfly Cluster, the Lagoon Nebula, M15, M27, the Trifid Nebula, the Swan Nebula, M11 and M5 before coming inside at 1 AM. My papers were soaked in dew and I felt damp, even though the scope was still dry. I am very impressed with the LXD75 mount to say the least. It's accuracy and alignment, even without training the drive was rewarding and I will never look backwards again. The electronics in it and the Autostar make astronomy a joy because you can focus on the things you want to see and less on getting there. You can also learn from the ? command while you are at the eyepiece, and that is very nice. The ONLY thing I would love to see Meade add to the Autostar is a LOG button that would save the object you were viewing and the time so it could be downloaded to a computer for later cataloging.

Optically the SN6 is a nice scope. For only 6 inches, it can still show you a lot. The views are crisp edge to edge and the fields are wide. I used it at 29X with the enclosed 26mm Plossl, and also with my older University Optics 18mm orthoscopic delivering about 42x. It resolves clusters well, and does the job on all the rest. On my old scope it would take me a summer of clear nights to see all that I saw in 2 hours tonite. And the consistent performance of the combination of the LXD75 and the SN6 is a winner. For a beginner, this is a substantial investment, and the technology may be a little intimidating, but two hours of training with a seasoned amateur at a club would be more than enough to get you on a lifetime of enjoyment. It's too bad we couldn't buy things like this when we were kids because I would have saved every penny I made to own a telescope like this.

Things I like
- the size of the tube
- the weight of the tube/cradle
- the weight of the mount
- the electronics
- the soundness of the mount and OTA - love the LXD75, love the SN6, together or apart.
- the battery pack - D cells are the way to go if you need a small portable source. I also ordered the cigarette lighter adapter for it.

Things I wish they would improve/add
- add a DVD
- put that LOG button onto the Autostar
- small red led in the base to see the eyepiece tray
- velcro strap to hold the Autostar on the leg, trivial but helpful

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tonite the fun begins

It's here!!! The FedEx driver came by this morning at about 10:45 AM with his little van and I greeted him in the driveway. He greeted me with 3 boxes. When I told him it was a telescope, he told me that he had one as well, also a computerized Meade. We talked astronomy for a bit, I talked to him about shipping the OTA of the Cave and it's doable. I packed it all in the door and began to unpack the mount, carefully. It all looked pretty straightforward, but I had read the manual about 4 times before it even got here, and it all went together in under an hour. I had to take it outside to see how it would work on the pad that I had made yesterday for it. I built a completely leveled pad to minimize errors in tracking and finding objects. I hadn't even plugged it in yet, took a picture and shared it with my friends on Cloudy Nights.

After I plugged it in, at first nothing lit up. I tested the battery pack and was not getting any voltage, so I removed all of the batteries one at time, tested them, replaced them, and tested the voltage, this time I was lucky. I know I put those batteries in right, so that was unusual, but now it's fine. I plugged in the Autostar and the battery and fired it up. Beautiful.

Rob in the forum mentioned about being "seasoned" and remebering when setting circles and atlases were king. You know, that's not such a bad thing either, but when you have the ability to just slew without physically touching the scope, and letting the motors guide all telescope control, even that would have been nice back in the Cave days of astronomy. We used to dream of having full control of telescopes, with ideas to build digital setting circles (homemade encoders) hooked to a Commodore 64 using power window motors to slew to the co-ordinates, buying CCD chips to image with remotely, and the like. In our wildest dreams we could not imagine things like autoguiding, that was so much further down the road, and here it is, on an amateur level instrument, and affordable to the world.

As a bonus, they actually program the celestial co-ordinates of a few million objects into a palm sized controller today, you push a few buttons and you're there for the ride. Yet this scope has the complete feel of a classic from the way you can lock the shafts to the counterweight. At heart, it's still a telescope.

The LXD75 is a nice mount. I am going to wait a few months before I sell my Cave and ship the OTA down here since it is manageable. I have a strange feeling this mount will handle it, and if it does I will have the combination of the outstanding optics of a hand made telescope combined with the electronics of a modern mount. And if it doesn't, well I will have a Cave on a Dobsonian mount, and that's not a bad thing either.

Weather permitting, tonite I will evaluate the OTA. I am hoping the Schmidt Newt performs exactly as I expect it, and if it does, then I have made an excellent purchase. I feel I know it's limits well enough, but the real prize will be the camera work I want to do with it after I get my share of viewing in again.

Tonite the fun begins!!!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stargate 101A

I am writing this in restrospect of all that I have traversed to plan, craft and dream. It is not economical to transport the Cave to Kentucky from Alberta, so now things change. I had thought about just going and getting it, but even that, economically does not make sense. I really hate to part with my Uncle Walter's telescope, but it's the next right thing to do.

Before the internet, we used this thing called mail. And back in the early 70's, there was just me, Grampa, and Uncle Walter who had telescopes in our family. Grampa's was a nice little Tasco spotting scope with a cool zoom lens and a little tripod. It was him who bought me my first telescope for my 6th birthday in 1970, a little tabletop tripod mounted 30mm refractor that had the telescoping tubes like you see the pirates using. And then there was Uncle Walter, who always had to do better. He had a 6 inch f/8 on a homemade mount.

My interest grew in astronomy and I gradually got bigger telescopes, a 40mm refractor, then a 60mm refractor. I'd spend hours out in the yard winter and summer with them and binoculars and Walter and I would write to each other every month or so about what we were observing. And then in the summer of 1976, Walter came to visit, and we had to wait until 11 O Clock for him to show up. It was worth the wait, he outright gave me the 6 inch f/8 telescope because he had bought a new one. At last, my first real telescope. Now I could see everything. Things that were small were larger, and the moon's surface was awesome, as were all of the planets, nebulas, star clusters. That following spring, I was finally able to make out Virgo and learned a ton of new constellations. We would write each other often, he would suggest things for me to do with it, how to do this and that.

And in the summer of 1985, he came back to visit. I was busy with college the few years before that and didn't have much time to do astronomy, but the scope went everywhere with me. I asked him if he still used his telescope. He said no, so I asked him if he wanted to sell it. He notified me that he would, and he wanted $1200 for it, that it was a Cave, and that I would have to make a 6 hour drive to get it. We worked out a payment plan, and two weeks later I picked it up.

I'll never forget getting this scope. Everything about it was precise. The mount was awesome, and a clock drive to boot. The first time I looked through it was unreal. The best star images I had ever seen. The best planetary images I had ever seen. The contrast was fantastic. We removed the homemade 10 inch f/6 from the club's dome and installed the Cave 10 inch f/5 for Halley's comet. I spent every single night out at the observatory, and showed 20,000 people that comet through this scope. When the people went home, we looked at everything you can imagine. The following summer, I built it a home of its own. And I used it whenever I could. Until I moved to Kentucky in 1999, it was 20 minutes drive to the dark country and 2 minutes to observing.

So just as the 6 inch went to a new owner, the Cave must also find a loving home. Unless circumstances change, it is time to move on. I selected a 6 inch f/5 Schmidt Newtonian to take it's seat. This scope has the features I was thinking would be nice to have, such as GoTo and the ability to do astrophotography again. It's the modern version of the old 6 inch telescope. It is small and transportable, and that is desireable since the skies are no longer dark in one place. It has a good mount with tracking. It's even got some neat electronic features. It can never take the place of the Cave. The Cave opened me to deep space, this is just the express ticket for getting back there, a new Stargate if you will. I don't expect to discover anything with it, but I do intend to push it to it's limits and try to take it places I could not get with the Cave. I'm sure we will learn to love each other in the days ahead because all of my telescopes are like children to me.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Beginner Advice

How often do we read on forums and in magazines the recommendations of others about various things. Whether it is what we view, what we use to view with, or what is best for us.
I recently got into a discussion with a new amateur about choosing their first instrument. You know, so often the books today recommend that people begin with binoculars. Then the books go into a long spiel about which binoculars are better suited for astronomy. This recommendation is not carved in stone, but because people read it over and over it has become ingrained in their heads that this is the answer.
The recommendation came about because most people allready have binoculars in their home. If they don't, the recommendation does not say to go out and purchase binoculars although some will want to do them.
So this advice is for the newcomer. Binoculars are very small aperture instruments with fixed magnification generally. Their performance is only slightly better than a similar sized scope. There is no special magic in binoculars today that improves much over yesterday, although some would have you believe that. There is no pair of binoculars that will exceed the performance of all but the poorest 6 inch reflector telescope on a good mount.
So I am going to go on my 35 years or so in this hobby. I feel qualified to offer a new recommendation to beginners, or as qualified as anyone else who has made qualified remarks. Skip the binoculars for now, and invest the money in a telescope. Begin with something 6 inches or more in aperture. Skip the apochromatic refractors and binoculars for now as these are more specialized instruments. For the most bang for your buck, the good old fashioned Newtonian reflector of 6 inches or more in diameter will open the entire cosmos to you. Down the road, you may wish to upgrade. Telescopes like this are easy to sell later on. They are portable enough to go anywhere, large enough to see abour everything, and serious enough to do real astronomy. They are also one more thing, an excellent value.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gearing Up For Summer

Today marks an anniversary of sorts for many reasons. I am pleased with my progress so far in returning to astronomy, and I am quite satisfied with my new equipment. I find my curiousity is rising in things I could never imagine years ago, particularly in the area of stellar evolution, galactic formation, and planetary science. I am fascinated by the way that the bigger picture is unfolding before me on how this all fits together. Down the road, I plan on writing an article on my ideas on all of this, but in the meantime, tonite I am just going to enjoy the full moon and the occultation of Antares. Clear Skies and if not, Cloudy Nights

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Binocular Heaven

I never thought I would see the day when I could enjoy smaller aperture instruments again, but I am really loving my new binoculars.

I ordered my 15x70 Garretts earlier this month and Zach assured me that these are suitable astronomical instruments. First off, I'd like to thank him and will highly recommend Garrett Optical for any purchases. I would definitely purchase from them again and I really loved being able to speak to them in person even though it was a small order.

Every object that I have targeted this month, and that has not been many because the weather has been less than co-operative has been seen. Some of the objects that I have had little or no trouble with are M65, M66, M13,M92, and M3. Two galaxies and three globular clusters is not a bad start. I am really looking forward to enjoying open clusters like M45 and M44 but that will have to wait a bit for now. Summer brings a whole new enjoyment in star fields in the Sagittarius region, nebula, more globular clusters, and even for the challenge, a planetary like M57. Yep I fully intend to knock this one out soon.

This evening I purchased the FarSight binocular mount and a Multiple Reticle Red Dot finder to mount on top to allow me to more accurately point at these fine objects. Tapered binoculars do not allow one to sight, and trying to sight down the focusing wheel in the dark is hard for an old guy like me, so I will take all the help I can get, especially from a 1x finder, and a decent bino-bracket that allows me to remove them without having to re-tighten the center shafts every time I set them up.

I think the real joy of binoculars is that they demonstrate how little you can use and still see so much, and they are a perfect compliment to any telescope for introducing the general public as to the expectations of binoculars, small, and large aperture telescopes. They can see with their own eyes, nobody has to say a word.

If you don't have binoculars, try them out for yourself at a star party. When you consider how small your investment will be, and how much you can actually see, you might consider ordering some to take along when you are out camping this summer under the blackest skies you have ever seen, wishing for something to use just to do more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Observatory Planning 101

At the top of this blog, you will see a photo of my observatory that I built in the spring and summer of 1986 to house my Cave Astrola 10 inch newtonian telescope. It worked well, but it's almost 2300 miles from where I now reside. With plans to bring the telescope to Kentucky comes the need to make plans for how to best utilize it and learn from the previous construction how to do things better.

I've not made any blueprints or sketches yet, but it will likely be very similar to this one in design. Initially, it will begin life as a deck with a pier sitting on concrete, since the location that I can best use for an observatory sits on a sloped area of the yard. I have marked out a space using rebar that is about 8 by 12 feet. The new observatory, when completed, will have a small porch on it about 4 feet wide and 8 feet long.

I dream of an observatory wired fully for electronics conveniently located at the pier, with safe and accomodating red lighting, security, and the ability to do remote imaging from indoors one day. I envision an observatory that is architecturally attractive, maintenance free, and easy to use. It must blend in with the overall scheme of the landscape and existing pool and relaxation decks.

But the one thing that I do not intend to do is rush the construction. This will be a carefully planned endeavour that will begin with transporting the telescope, and will be done in segments as it can be afforded.

The one thing I am most looking forward to is that it will be at home, not located at a place 12 miles away at minimum, and with that, it is certain to be used most every clear night and really add to my enjoyment of this hobby again.

I'll post more as things come together.