With Skywatch day upon us, I waited and watched the sky until early afternoon. I set up the two telescopes I planned to bring, my XT8 dobsonian and my 6 inch newtonian on AVX mount. I did a collimation on both telescopes and gathered all my equipment and made sure all my batteries were charged. It’s always a little stressful gathering all my gear. It would be a bad night if I drove 45 minutes to find I don’t have a power source or a missing cable. The skies had been clear all day and the forecast said it would remain clear. The ride to the site was clear as a bell. It was set to be pretty cold, low 20’s with single digit chills. I put a few hand warmers in my pockets and used a foot warmer in my boots. I activated them before I left so they’d be plenty warm by time I got to the site. My feet got so hot I had to take my boots off. It helped a little bit then I had to take the foot warmers off my sock!
My car weighed down with two telescopes, cameras, mounts, chairs, and computers filled with the sound of Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire album. I was getting pretty amped and ended up driving right by my turn! I crossed the state line and realized I had gone to far. I was already running a little behind so I was pretty mad. Fortunately I was only a little off course and only a mile and a half away from the site. I backed into a cozy spot between a new telescope owner and a vet. Not a bad spot to be.
I quickly set up my dobsonian then started assembling my AVX mount. I was in a rush to get a good spot, because I wanted to be pointed more or less to Polaris to speed up my alignment process. Thankfully that cozy spot was exactly where I wanted to be. From what I remember Polaris was right above these two trees. So I pointed my mount in that direction, mounted my OTA, tossed on the camera and balanced the rig. I shook some hands and met some of the folks close by and attempted to help the newbies with their set up. It was my first time messing with a manual and low end EQ mount. I think I made things worse. Fortunately another club member who has helped me several times saw my ruining the work he had done earlier and came over to stop me. As the Sun started to set some of the brighter stars became visible. What I thought was Polaris appeared. It was over another pair of trees than I had originally thought. So I picked up my mount and scope and rotated towards the star. It was higher than I remember too. So I changed the Alt to get it in my polar scope. As the sky darkened and more stars became visible I discovered what I was pointing at was NOT Polaris. Polaris was exactly where I originally thought it was. D’OH! I picked up the rig and rotated back. I started my 2 star alignment. First up was Vega. The scope is normally pretty close after I punch in the Lat Long into the hand controller, but this time it was quite a bit off. So I returned the mount to it’s center marks and started over. Again Vega was far from where the scope stopped. I lined it up in my finder scope, centered it in the 20mm eyepiece and moved on. As I get to the end of the 4 calibration stars, I go down to a 12mm eyepiece. I did my polar align and it was WAY off. 5 and 7 degrees RA and Dec. I thought I was going to have to pick the whole rig up again. Fortunately the knobs had enough play in them that I was able to polar align without moving the whole rig. I checked the alignment with a couple of bright stars and decided I was on point. I put the camera on the scope, got focus on Rigel.
In between some of these steps I would go and try and help the newbies, not that I am a vet in any of this. The inexpensive, ok, the cheap reflector has a permanently attached red dot finder. It actually has two dots that you have to line up with each other, then line up with the object. It’s very close to the OTA so you have to press your face against the scope to see through it, or get behind the scope. It was practically useless. As much as I tried, I couldn’t get M42 or even Rigel in the eyepiece.
I went back to my rig and slewed over to The Horsehead Nebula. This was my main target for the night. I had high hopes for 90 second subs. I even tried another polar alignment when the 90 second subs were giving me inconsistent stars. Some subs looked good, others had trails. I decided not to push it and settled for 60 second subs. After deciding on my ISO and exposure length I set Nebulosity to capture 80 frames and went to my XT8 for some visual work. I keep saying I am going to do more of this, but I never do. AP has me addicted. I went over to one of the members who has helped me before to see what he was shooting. Comet Lovejoy was his target and I had yet to be able to find it this outing so I peeked through his finder scope to see where to start my search. I lined up my red dot finder in the general area and pushed the tube around until I found it. It wasn’t too hard to find. A fairly bright green blob with a fairly bright center. I could faintly see some trailing from the tail. I was planning to take a few shots of the comet from the dark sky spot. I have tried a few times from the backyard with minimal success. It seems from my light polluted backyard a single exposure is better than stacked. I guess from the backyard I just end up stacking the light pollution. As my camera fired away a few people left which can be seen in some of my frames from the bright red tail lights flooding my frames with a blinding red.
Since I was unable to do much to help the newbies with their telescope I made it a point to let them look through my dob when I found something interesting. The kid, 13 or so I think, seemed moderately interested in what I had to offer.
As the night went on my batteries began to run down and frost began collecting on the gear. It was actually so cold that my computer was running VERY slow. I ended up putting my hand warmers under the computer. It seemed to work. I got 75 of my 80 intended frames, I decided I wanted another go at the comet. A fellow AP-er who also has an AVX was close by. He was shooting the comet so I asked him for his RA and DEC and slewed to Lovejoy C2014 Q2. I took 25 or so 60 second frames. By this point my computer battery was done, and some how my mount power cable got bumped and came unplugged enough that I lost power. That was my cue to pack up. Before that I spent some time doing a little visual work. As stated I saw the comet. I found M79, it was much smaller than I was expecting. NOTHING like M13. I spent a while looking at the double cluster in Casopia. It’s so pretty. I found M31 and failed at M33. By that time my hands were going numb and the frosty tube wasn’t helping. I know I say this all the time but I really need to do more visual work. Maybe it’ll get better when it’s warm again.
With batteries dead and frost over the gear I decided it was time to go. Also, my poor dogs were home alone and I hate to leave them when I don’t have to. I said a few good byes and on my way out I talked to one of the other club members. She is one of the ones I have talked to the most. She is fairly new too but has a much wider knowledge base than I do. I asked her if she was looking at anything cool and she was looking at the comet I think. I talked about some of the things I saw and talked about how pretty the double cluster is. She said she hadn’t seen that tonight and wanted to look at it with her scope. She had a 25mm eyepiece in her 12.5 scope. There wasn’t much FOV I asked if she wanted to use my 40mm eyepiece and we looked at that with it. Then M31. I REALLY want a big dobsonian. Things look so much prettier in a big huge dobsonian than anything else. Oh, another member had is 14 inch GOTO dob. I looked at the comet and Jupiter with his telescope. That planet was HUGE in his 14in dob and 2 inch eyepiece! I got to step up my visual game!
A summery of the imaging, a few subs on both objects had to be tossed from jets, tail lights, and people walking in front of my scope. But overall things turned out fairly well. I took darks when I got home, leaving the camera outside of course. I took some flats by pointing the OTA to a white computer screen. The images came out ok, but I was thinking my flats didn’t turnout well. I reshot them the next morning using the clear blue sky. The histogram looked much better and I was able to get the vignetting to match what I had in my finished stack. So I totally reprocessed them. The first time around I only used 10 or so darks with the comet because I didn’t have a ton of lights. The next time around I used all 40 or so darks. It really cleaned up the comet’s final stack. The Horsehead nebula turned out fairly well too. The framing wasn’t great but it’s growing on me. The Horsehead and flame nebula are on the left and on the right it’s mostly dark. So it’s a kind of cool contrast. I didn’t think I would get much data because it seems this object does better with modified camera as there is a lot of H alpha data. I was pleasantly surprised. Below is the finished, low res (as wordpress only supports 10mb uploads.) finished, for now, images. Links with higher res astobin below.