10/23/14 East Coast Star Party

I am late writing this, oh well.
I wanted to go to this star party for the whole weekend, but the vacation calendar was full, so it just wasn’t in the cards. I was only going to be there from the afternoon of the 23rd through the morning of the of the 24th. I had to borrow a tent from a friend at the gym. My plan was to pack two telescopes. My new imaging setup, a Celestron 6in Newtonian and the Advanced VX goto GEM, and my trusty Orion XT8 Newtonian on a Dobsonian mount. The plan is to image as much as I can, and while the mount and camera are doing all the work, I would do some visual astronomy. I have been neglecting that for photography lately. Well, spoiler alert, I didn’t do much visual work at all. My plan to bring two scopes was almost ruined when I realized my small car was, well, a small car. Somehow I was able to pack both scopes, my camera, my laptop, tent, sleeping bag, two chairs, a table, and a kitchen sink! I left for Coinjock, NC and made a stop to eat lunch with my wife. I had heard check in started at 2pm and I wanted to get there around that time to get a good spot.
Lunch was good and off I went to the campsite. At first I parked next to a HUGE 25 inch dob! The trees surrounded my area and I realized I wasn’t going to see much at this location, so I walked down a bit and found an area with a clear shot to the south and a little less in the way of tree obstruction. It seemed this was the spot most of the AP folks were, and the visual folks were at the other end. My main mission was to try out the new imaging set up so I set up across from the row of really high end telescopes and cameras, set ups that probably rival the cost of my house!
I set up my tent first, something I haven’t done since boy scouts some 20 years ago, wow that makes me sound really old! The tent went up with minimal profanities and I started bringing out the telescopes. A fellow club member came by and heeded my request for help collimating my scopes that I had posted on facebook. I had done this before with the supplied equipment, but I had just gotten a fancy laser collimation tool, that apparently are more of a gimmick than anything according to the more experienced folks in the club. I wish someone told me that before I spend the $70. The scopes were close from my laser attempt, so I might use it anyways, after all I did drive an hour on some bumpy roads including a bit of a drive offroad in a small car, so I am sure that bounced the alignment off a tad. It wasn’t long before the Solar Eclipse was set to start. Our campsite was a very poor spot to observe this as it would take place just a couple of degrees above the horizon as the Sun set. The same nice man who helped me collimate my scopes offered myself and another club member a ride a few miles down the road to a flat marsh land where we could watch. My plan initially was to try and photograph this, but my solar filter is an 8 inch and my imaging scope today is a 6 inch, so this was out of the question. I did however bring the filter so I could visually observe the event. It worked fairly well, though anyone who has had a glass solar filter knows it’s kind of like a mirror, so I had to look at myself while watching the Sun. This was elevated to a point by keeping my dark colored sunglasses on and using the lower edge of the filter. The dark glasses prevented the reflection from being so apparent. All in all it was cool to watch, the estimates were about 10% of the Sun would be obscured by the moon, I’d say it was a bit less than that. Sadly I didn’t get to capture any shots.
We went back to camp and I put the finishing touches on my GEM. I was so excited and full of hope with my new set up and skipped a few steps. I hadn’t properly balanced the scope on the mount, I pointed the mount roughly north, and who knows what else I messed up. This all became very apparent as I attempted to align the scope using the 2 star method with calibration stars. No matter how many calibration stars I added, the goto was still a degree or so off. This of course was my first real night with the mount, so I had the pressure of new equipment plus the limited time at a nice dark sky location. The pressure was on!
I had read the manual a few times, watched youtube and solicited advice from message boards. I had a pretty strong idea of what needed to be done and a rough idea on how to do it. I really wanted to get a chance to shoot M20 again, but M20 was quickly falling behind a row of trees and my alignment wasn’t working very well. I managed to find M8 and I was getting ready to search for M20 when the clouds rolled in. Clouds?! The forecast showed clear skies all night!! The whole camp was cussing the weather man! It was about this time I realized my poor alignment was probably due to the lack of pointing the mount/scope to the north, and poor balance. The clouds started to clear, and then quickly rolled back in even thicker than before. This was my chance. I could start from scratch. Part of me wanted to attempt to save this alignment attempt, but I knew I would be best served to start over, so I did. I balanced RA and DEC, which with the advanced VX can be hard as the gears are not very lose. There are probably benefits to this, but the mount hardly acts as a fulcrum. I obviously got it close enough, I didn’t spring for the $50 polar scope, but I set Polaris through the bore hole about center. This worked pretty well. From what I recall, I did the 2 star, plus 4 calibration stars, then I did the all star polar align, then I slewed to a few stars, aligned and set as calibration stars, then I THINK I might have even redone all star polar align. I tested with a 30 second exposure, mind you with my nexstar I could do 10 seconds at best. 30 seconds showed clear, round pretty stars. I was pretty happy. I have heard people say they can do 60 seconds unguided with this mount so I went for it. Well, they obviously have better polar alignment than I did because the stars, while not totally deformed were obviously not perfect round stars. Back to 30 I went. My first target was the Ring Nebula. I managed to shoot a few frames with my camera. Then I decided to hook the camera to my macbook and fire up Nebulosity. Nebulosity is a pretty neat program. It can capture, stack, and process images all in one program. They also a guiding program called PHD that seems to be what most people use to guide with. Nebulosity seemed to take better quality images than the camera did. My Canon T3i saves things as a raw file, while Nebulosity saved things in a different format that seemed to show more data per frame. I think from now on I will image only with Nebulosity doing the capturing. After the ring nebula I went after M33, M31 and M45. With M33 I tried 60 second exposures x 30, M31 I did 30 second exposures x 60 and M45, I don’t recall at the moment. Because of the bright stars I think it was shorter and less frames. Also I shot with just the camera. I wonder how much better M45 would have come out if I shot with Nebulosity.
I really wanted to try my hand at M42, but by this time it was almost 3am, I was beat, I had been up from the shift before last and I was hardly on my feet. M42 was behind the trees, I used my trusty iPhone w/ skyguide and saw that it was going to be about another hour before M42 would come from behind the trees. I decided I would call it a night and head in to my tent. It had gotten pretty cold by this point, but there was a steady breeze and the humidity was low, so thankfully there was no dew. I shut down, covered up the scopes and got in to my sleeping bag. WOW it was cold. I do not miss this camping stuff! Worse yet, because of all the monster energy drinks I had drank over the last 24 hours I had to pee every 30 minutes. I had made a deal with myself, if I got up and m42 was out, I would fire up the scope and capture it. Well, it was cold, the whole camp was asleep, and I was beat, deals off! I watered the trees and went back to bed.
I woke to the sound of someone closing a car door, it was daylight, how did that happen? After maybe 2 hours of sleep I was up and decided to go ahead and take everything down and hit the road. A few of the club members and I chatted a bit as I packed, they went off to get some coffee and I finished loading the car. All in all it was a total blast. Even Though it was cold and camping kind of sucks. From what I heard, the rest of the party was cloud free day and night. The sky was soo pretty when the clouds were away. I could see so many more stars, more even than the semi-dark spot I usually set up at. I can’t wait to set up at another dark spot like this again. I got some pretty solid images that are quite a bit better than anything I have done before. I still have a lot to learn, but having a solid mount really helps.


The Ring Nebula


M33 Triangulum Galaxy


M31 Andromeda Galaxy


M45 Pleiades


Lunar Eclipse 10/8/14

So this is late. But oh well.

The lunar eclipse was looming and my normal set up spots are both heavily obscured to the west. This is going to be problematic as the eclipse will be taking place as the moon sets and the sun rises. There was a little discussion among fellow amerature astronomers on where to set up. I went on google earth to find a flat area with a clear western view. I found a boat landing in a very light polluted area. But since the moon is bright and big, the light pollution wouldn’t be an issue. I shared my finding on our facebook page and a fellow amerature astronomer and astrophotographer agreed this would be a suitable spot to view and image. We plotted to be there and set up by 4am. I set my alarm for 330am. I woke up, made it the my living room and sat on the couch for a moment. I sighed and debated going back to bed. I decided since there was probably a fellow club member who would be there, it would be rude to stand him up. There were quite a few clouds still out. I have a bad habit of seeing a few clouds, not setting up only to find out things cleared and I missed a great night. So I quietly packed up as to not wake the dogs and headed out. I scanned through my iTunes to find some good jams to wake up to and decided on Weezer, the blue record. Man, that was a good call. On my drive I drank a monster and did my best Rivers Cuomo. Before I knew it, the 30 or so minute drive was over and I was navigating the confusing parking lot. I could see the SUV of one of the fellow members and finally made my way over there. We set up on the sidewalk right at the boat ramps. It was just us two. The clouds had cleared nicely and the moon was visible the whole ride in. Of course as I put my OTA on the tripod and got ready to do my 2 star align, the clouds rolled in covering the moon and all identifiable stars. A huge cloud system was over the moon. I could see the direction the clouds were moving and could tell the moon would be clear in a few minutes. Right as the eclipse started the moon became visible from behind the wall of clouds. The stars behind us were still obscured so I would have to image with no tracking. We experimented with different ISO and shutter speeds through the morning. About 30 minutes in to the event cars started arriving and leaving. People on their way to work were stopping by to get a view. Another photographer without a telescope showed up and imaged on the beach. There were passing clouds that blocked the moon from time to time but overall the morning was fairly successful. A group of bridge repairmen and others came by and asked us a few questions. As the sky became brighter, the Moon became washed out and capturing the red color was very difficult. All in all, it was a good outing. I am glad I made it out. I ended up with between 150-200 shots. I didn’t use but a couple of them. I did most of the processing work that day with only a couple of hours of sleep and a ton of caffeine. This makes for poor focus and rushed work.


Imaging Report 9/27/14

After another streak of rain and clouds I finally peaked outside as the sun was going down to find partly cloudy skies. Good enough I thought. I was hesitant but half the sky (the half I WASN”T interested in) was clear. I decided I’d do some exploring. As I set up the clouds started clearing up. Initially my plan was to stay to the north and maybe hit the double cluster, or take a shot an M31. As clouds were still hanging around my area of interest I found the double cluster, and tried to gussy up the alignment. With this old NexStar 8, it’s rare I get anything in the eyepiece, even a 40mm eyepiece. It’s almost 15 years old!
After looking around the northern sky I noticed the south had cleared and Sagittarius was becoming visible. I wanted M20. It has alluded me time and time again. Truthfully I am getting really mad! I found it visually a couple of months ago, and once while imaging, but I keep missing it. I poked around and still couldn’t find it. However, M8 was clearly visible in the general area so I decided I would experiment with that again. I found it in the eyepiece, hooked up my DSLR, spent several minutes focusing to get the stars on the live view. Finally I was able to see stars, moved the scope around a bit to center M8 and began exposing. If I recall these were 13 second exposures at 3200 ISO. After several frames I took a few dark frames. Everytime I use dark frames in Nebulosity the image comes out way too dark and all the data is lost, or at least buried deeper than I know how to pull it out. I took some shots of M13 again too. This time because of the nature of M13, you know 300,000 pin point stars, I decided to do shorter exposures to prevent any star distortion. Again I took the darks. After taking the darks it was getting to be a little late and the dew was getting out of hand. I packed up and went inside.
The next day I started up my trial version of Nebulosity and began stacking and stretching the images. I got similar results as before, not surprising seeing as I did pretty much the same thing with only a slightly different exposure and ISO. However, the wife OK’ed the $80 license for Nebulosity and I upgraded. This time around I decided to get as much data as I could.
I took both sets of M8 light frames I took. Different exposure and ISO lengths and no darks. I stacked nearly 60 frames of 10-15 second exposures. This time there was a little more data and no annoying lines! I did the same with M13, slightly improved images. I wanted to do the same with M20 but I haven’t had a second chance to image it yet. Then I remembered I took two sets the other night. One as it was kind of out of center, then another set while it was more centered. I’d have to cut off a ton of data once stacked, but the outer bit of the image is just random stars, the nebula is the interesting part. So I gave it a shot. Overall I am pretty pleased with the images. This is done with a 15 year old, mid range goto alt az telescope/mount, a mid range DSLR and only a few months of astronomy knowledge. I have began selling old toys of mine, mostly drum gear I no longer use, to fund a mid level GOTO GEM. Hopefully that combined with the later addition of autoguiding will allow me to up my capturing abilities, and further experiments will allow me to understand and improve my processing abilities, including learning how to use dark and bias frames. Below are M8, M13 and M20.






These were all taken with an original NexStar 8, Canon T3i w/ Celestron f6.3 focal reducer processed with Nebulosity and GIMP 2.8 from my redzone backyard in Chesapeake, VA after being told over and over by other APs that my set up wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to get anything worthwhile. It ain’t Hubble, but it’s pretty good considering.