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