Sunday, May 07, 2017

 

Issue 540: Get Thee to a Dark Site II


Last ish we got you a dark site, or at least gave a few pointers as to how you and your fellow astronomy club members could find and keep one. This time, we’re going to talk about using that site.

And you know you want to use it. Sure, in this day of electronic cameras and computer processing you can take pretty good pictures from the backyard, but you’ll always get better results under dark skies. Visual observer? As I said last week, the galaxies of spring cry out for the darkest skies possible.

There is no doubt about one thing, spring weather in the USA, and especially east of the Mississippi, can be capricious. Before talking about what you bring to your club’s observing field and what you do there, maybe we should discuss “whether.”

Obviously, if you’ve got beautiful blue skies and the forecast is for more, a dark site trip is a natural. But what if the sky is unsettled and the weather forecasts ambiguous? Back in the day, back when I was more sanguine about hard-core observing, back when I lived downtown and couldn’t observe anything from my backyard, I had a rule, “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.”

That stood me in good stead for years, and resulted in me seeing far more than I would have if I’d let a few clouds scare me off. Most of the time—though certainly not all of the time—I at least saw something at the club site in return for an hour’s journey into the west. I would sometimes wimp-out observing plan and gear-wise, though. If the sky really did look doubtful, I’d tend to change my plans from “astrophotography” to “visual,” and the telescope from my C11 to my 5-inch ETX Maksutov Cassegrain, Charity Hope Valentine.  Anyway, I always found that even if I was mostly skunked, I had a better out on the observing field than I would have had sitting at home watching television.

Let’s say, you’ve got a night that looks to be uncompromisingly good, though. What do you load into your vehicle? The simple answer is “everything you need, nothing you don’t.” Certainly you want all the gear you require to allow you to execute whatever your observing plan is, but there are things you’d take to a multi-night star party that you will likely want to leave at home for a club site run. Remember, you’re going to have to pack all that stuff back into your car at the end of the evening and possibly unload it at home.

What NOT to Bring to a Dark Site…

Observing table

You may actually need an observing table depending on your vehicle and what you are doing, but maybe you can back off from a big camp table to a TV tray. If I am doing visual observing, a table just large enough for an eyepiece box and maybe a star atlas is more than enough. Imaging? I’ll need something to put the laptop computer on, but not anything more than that.

When I switched vehicles from a sedan (a Camry) to a truck/SUV (4Runner), I eliminated observing tables altogether, operating out of the back of the 4Runner, tailgating it as it were, which is the best of all worlds—I even have AC power available there from the truck’s built in inverter and auxiliary battery.

Computer 

This is a maybe/maybe not thing. Even if you are doing imaging, you may be able to eliminate the laptop. Using a standalone auto-guider and a digital single lens reflex (saving images on the camera’s memory card) can allow that. By saying “ixnay” to the laptop, you can also leave one large battery at home (a laptop’s internal battery will rarely last an entire observing run), the above mentioned table, cables, mouse, mousepad, etc., etc., etc. Yes, it’s nice to have a computerized star atlas like Stellarium, but in the interests of simplicity, sometimes I don’t mind getting reacquainted with Sky Atlas 2000 or Uranometria. Just can't go back to that? SkySafari running on a tablet is a good compromise.

Stuff you always bring and never use 

You tend to throw a pair of binoculars in the car, but never/rarely use them? Leave them at home. The same goes for stuff like extra flashlights, a second box of eyepieces, radios, ice-chests, etc. All that junk is nice at a big star party, but you are not going to be at the dark site long enough to feel the need for this stuff.

A telescope that is just too much

Small can be beautiful...
We all want to maximize our observing experience, but if a telescope is so large and/or complex, that by the time you get it assembled and working it’s time to go home, leave it at home. Give me a freaking C8 for dark site use not a C11 or (horrors) C14. When all your buddies are packed up and ready to hit the road and you still don’t have the scope off its mount, I think you’ll begin to believe that sacrificing some aperture and/or features might not be such a bad idea.

Things that will annoy your fellow observers and possibly the landowner
  
Radios blasting your particular preference in music and green laser pointers that make the sky look like something out of Return of the Jedi have no more place at the club dark site than they do at a big, organized star party.

What to Bring

A Telescope 

Sure, you know to pack the telescope, but make sure you pack all of it. One night, one cloudy night, when it wasn’t raining, nevertheless, I headed to the dark site with my C11. As soon as I arrived onsite, almost magically the clouds began to scurry off and I began assembling my big scope. Yes, as above, it was really too much for a short dark site run, but I was younger, stronger, and dumber then.

I had just got the NexStar 11 GPS on her tripod when I had a vision. Of the telescope’s hand control sitting on the dining room table of Chaos Manor South. And that was just where I’d left it. What to do? There wasn’t anything to do. I packed up and went home. I was just thankful I wasn’t at a star party 400 miles away.  

In the interests of this sort of thing not happening to you, it’s a good idea to have a checklist.  If you know an item is necessary, put it on the list and don’t check it off till it is packed in the car.

Power

A telescope that doesn't need batteries can be nice sometimes...
Some lucky folks have AC power available at the club site, but that is rare. Be prepared to operate off batteries all night. So, ensure your batteries are fully charged beforehand. Don’t just assume they are. What sort of batteries? I favor the ubiquitous 17ah jump start battery packs. Not only do they have enough juice to power most scopes and accessories all night, they usually have built in lights which are handy when you are packing up at the end of the evening. Yes, don’t take too much stuff, but don’t scrimp on batteries. I always take one for the (goto) scope, one for the dew heaters, and one for the laptop.

Dew Heaters

At home, in my backyard, I can often get by without a dew heater system on my SCTs and refractors. My house and neighboring houses and trees shield much of the heat sucking sky from the view of my scope, acting as giant dew shields. On an open field out in the country? Uh-uh. Even if your area is drier than my Gulf Coast stomping grounds, you’ll need something to keep dew off.

Dew prevention is a subject for an entire article, but I can offer some basic guidance here: use heater strips on objective or corrector. If all you have is a dew-zapper gun—a 12 vdc hair drier cum window defroster—you will soon lose the battle against dew. A zapper can be sufficient for the secondary mirror of a Newtonian reflector, however.

Observing Chair

You’d think this would be something I’d tell you to leave at home, but it isn’t. Even for a relatively short visual observing run, being comfortable means you will see a lot more. Bring the chair along.

Accessories

Use that checklist to make sure you bring the vitals:  eyepieces, star diagonals, star charts (or a smart phone or tablet), red flashlights, etc. Don’t overdo. I restrict myself to one eyepiece case and one accessory box (a large Plano tacklebox).

Insect Repellent

"If it ain't raining." Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes...
Whether “just” a can of Deep Woods Off, or a Thermacell, don’t even think about heading to the dark site without bug zappers except in the very depths of winter.

A Coat/Jacket

“But Uncle Rod, it’s only gonna get down to the lower 70s.” Bring a coat or sweater or sweatshirt anyway. You will never be colder than when standing nearly stock still at a telescope under an open sky. Let it get to the mid-60s and you will begin to shiver and will throw in the towel unless you are prepared.

Cell phone

Don’t just always bring your cell phone with you as we insisted last time, make sure it is fully charged before leaving home. Taking a DC charger to the site might not be a bad idea either.

A Few Amenities

You won’t be out there that long, so don’t pack too much additional stuff, but certainly a few bottles of water and maybe even a couple of snack items is “reasonable.”

Setting Up

It’s your dark site, set up anywhere you like, right? Sure. But some places are better than others. If there’s been a recent rain, you’ll be better off on your field's high ground if it has any. You probably don’t want to be on a slope, however; telescopes are happiest on level ground. One other thing? Togetherness is fine. You want to be close to your buddies so you can share observations, chat, etc. However, if you’ve only got a few people at the site there’s no need to set up 3-feet from the next scope. Spread out and give each other some room.

Observing

You observe the way your normally observe at home or at a star party. What I’m really talking about here is observing rules. Your club probably needs to come up with a few. You want to prohibit white light and probably green lasers. But you don’t want to keep adding so many rules that people feel stifled. And be aware that at a club site with two or three people on the field, all those beloved rules formulated at that marathon club business meeting are likely gonna be observed in casual fashion at best.

For example? You wouldn’t dare fire up your vehicle and drive off a star party field at midnight, but at the old dark site with a few people around? It’s likely to be, “Had a great night Wilbur! See you next time, Hiram! Gotta head on home.” If everybody’s observing visually they can shield their eyes while you motor off. If someone’s in the middle of an astrographic exposure, wait until they are done. Just use common sense—and the same goes regarding any rules you and your mates think up.

Packing Up

The Moon is rising, or it’s just late, or it’s just you and your friends’ usual turns-into-a-pumpkin time. What about tear-down of the equipment? If, as above, you have to leave earlier than your pals, you’ll need to pack by red light (one of those red LED head-lights on a head-band is good if you keep it pointed at the ground).

You'll soon tire of using a dew-zapper gun...
Anyway, when the time comes, disassemble your scope, taking care that everything gets back into the vehicle. I tend to be a little less than scrupulous about putting every widget back in its proper place in the cases; I just shovel it all into the car so as not to delay my friends, and worry about sorting everything out the next morning (I can leave all my stuff in my car overnight thanks to a safe and secure neighborhood).

Once everything is back in the car, go over your area carefully with a white light to make sure nothing got dropped and that you’re not leaving any trash behind. Help your fellows out with the same thing. Then—well, you’re off for home (or perhaps your favorite late night bar out in the boondocks).

You’re off if everybody is ready to go, that is. One rule our club has made and that we observe scrupulously is, “Nobody leaves till everybody leaves.” Obviously that doesn’t apply to someone who has to go early for whatever reason. It just means those of us left at the end of the night linger on till the last person has their gear packed. That’s good for security’s sake, but even if, like us, you have a very safe dark site it’s still a good rule to live by. What if the last person standing has trouble getting their vehicle started?

Then, just say your goodbyes, “Great time, y’all! See you next time.” If you did everything right, and your club has the “right” site, believe me, you’ll hardly be able to wait for next time. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

 

Issue #539: Get Thee to the Dark Site Part I


Spring is here, and with it maybe some clear skies  that will encourage you to get out to your club or personal dark site (we’ve had very little rain here, but almost constant clouds). Yes, I constantly preach the worth of the good, old backyard as a spot for deep sky observing, but this is spring, and spring cries out for dark skies.

While some of the bright objects of winter are still on display, if you’re like me you’re focused on the “new” stuff now, the spring wonders on the rise. And what is spring all about deep-sky-wise? Galaxies. The mind-blowing Realm of the Galaxies that stretches from northernmost Coma through southernmost Virgo is back.

Alas, no variety of deep sky object is more harmed by the average suburban sky's light pollution than galaxies . Yes, diffuse nebulae can be tough from the backyard too, but at least a light pollution filter can help some with them. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “galaxy filter,” though a few rascals have sold mild LPR filters labeled as such a time of two over the years. The only way to see the marvels of spring as they should be seen is to get to a dark(er) site.

“Dark site? What dark site?” How do you find one if you don’t have one? Lots of factors can influence that process. Are you a club member or a lone wolf astronomer? Are you out in the semi-hinterlands where better skies are a short distance from your domicile, or are you stuck in an urban megalopolis? I can give you at least one unvarying piece of advice to begin, however:  if you are indeed a lone wolf, join a club. It’s much easier to secure a dark observing location as a group.

“But I’m not really a joiner, Uncle Rod.” That can be fine if you’ve got a close friend with a piece of land out in the dark and that friend is amenable to letting you use it for observing on a regular basis. If you don’t know anybody like that, though, watcha gonna do?

Forget parks, state and national. Most will insist you buy a camping permit and stay overnight if you intend to be onsite past dusk. Even if you are amenable to that (not me; 3 a.m. is my absolute witching hour), few parks have anything that will serve as an observing field. If there is a suitable open space—and there won’t always be one—it will likely be festooned with streetlights. That’s just the way it is—east of the Mississippi anyhow.

As a member of a club, the possibilities increase exponentially. Even if the club you join doesn’t already have a dark observing location—and it likely will—there will be enough people, even in a smaller club, to guarantee a much larger circle possibilities, a larger group of friends and friends of friends with property out in the dark.

If you get down to “friend of a friend of a friend,” in a dark site quest,  you’re much more likely to receive permission to use the property if you approach the person as an organized group rather than an individual (“What kind of a nut are you wanting to come on my land at night?”). And a doubtful land owner can sometimes be swayed with the promise of a modest yearly or monthly check from the club.

Let’s say your club doesn’t currently have a dark site, but sure does want one. What sort of spot do you look for? If you’re bereft of anything but the backyard, any dark location will seem like heaven, but, nevertheless, some places are better than others…

Distance

If a site is farther than about 60-miles from the club’s home base, it won’t get used much. As you may have heard tell, it’s often hard to get club members out for observing anyway. My invariable experience is that you can expect maybe 5% of the membership to show up on any given dark of the Moon weekend.

Place your site farther from home than those 60-miles and a maximum 1.5 – 2-hr drive and you probably won't even get the five percenters. You’ll find yourself alone most nights, and you’ll probably stop going frequently yourself after some of the initial fun wears off. 60-miles, however, can work, and is about the distance you need to get from medium-sized and larger cities before sky conditions begin to improve dramatically. See this light pollution map for guidance on how far you need to drive from your particular town (and which direction you need to drive in) for good observing.

If you live in a city that’s got a population of less than 250,000 or so, you can fudge on the 60-miles. My own site is about 30-miles to the west of Mobile, Alabama. Yes, there’s a significant light dome to the east, but that short drive ensures our site gets used frequently. There’s often no more than 2 – 3 observers on site on a clear night, but there is always at least that many folks on the field on any nice evening.

Specific Location

Yeah, I know you often can’t afford to be too choosy, but if there are alternatives there are some things it is best to avoid, starting with bad access roads. Yes, the site is nice and dark, but if getting to it requires traversing a rutted dirt track best suited for 4-wheel drive vehicles, and which is a swamp for weeks after a rainstorm, pass the place by if at all possible. Likewise eliminate a site where any part of the drive is difficult, not just to include the final access road. Paved highways leading to the site and gas-stations and/or convenience stores along the route are a practical must.

Before settling on a dark site choice, a few final checks are mandatory. First of all, get out there with a group from the club (whether your dark site committee or just an interested group of observers) and give the place a try. Try to hit the field on an average, not outstanding, night to get an idea what you should expect most of the time. What to look for? What’s the zenith limiting magnitude? Can you see all the stars of the little dipper (if you can, this will likely be a profitable location). Are there any light domes in addition to the one in the direction of the city? If so, is there still enough good sky for productive observing?

How about the field itself? Is it cut regularly? Can it be? This is very important. The site might be OK in the winter, but in the summer with grass three feet high, what are you going to do? Forget leveling your tripod; how are you going to avoid stepping on Mr. Snake? If the property’s owner doesn’t cut it, you’ll either need to induce him to do so with a financial donation or arrange to get it done yourselves if you are leasing the site, either formally or informally.

Are there any/many ambient lights? You may be surprised at how many land owners have multiple security lights. Frankly, due to the growth of the meth trade, the country ain’t what the country used to be. How many lights are there? Can you live with them? If not—especially if you are formally leasing the land—look into providing the offending lights with full cut-off fixtures (with the permission of the owner, of course).

Finally, how are the bugs? Almost any open field anywhere is going to have some bugs at sundown spring – fall. But are the skeeters, midges, no-see-ums, and blackflies worse than normal and can they be dealt with with Off and/or a Thermacell? Often, really bad bug problems can be traced to a nearby farm pond. Before seriously considering a site, check Google Earth to see if there is a stagnant body of water nearby.

Security

We’re conditioned to think “country safe, city scary.” In recent times, however, thanks to the above-mentioned drug explosion in the country, there has been a reversal. There are certainly some unsavory goings-on out in the boondocks these days. How do you pick a safe dark site?

The worst scenario is a piece of land in full view of a frequently traveled road with ungated access and no homeowner/farmhouse nearby. Before passing up on a site like this, check to see what the crime scene is like in the area (if there’s a newspaper covering the county, you can get crime reports there). Talking to people familiar with the area can be highly illuminating.

If you have no other choice than a dubious site and think it’s worth the possible risk, go ahead, but I suggest making it a rule that “nobody observes alone.” Actually, that’s a good maxim even at a secure site. If your vehicle decides it doesn’t want to start a two in the morning, you’ll be glad to have a buddy or two to lend a hand.

Which brings us to the eternal question, “Should you go armed?” I carried a handgun with me to the dark site a few times a couple of decades ago when I was observing alone, but gave that up. I found that if I were so worried that I thought I’d need firepower with me, I’d be too nervous to observe anyway. I just couldn't concentrate on what I was seeing in the eyepiece. After a few minutes I'd begin thinking every snapping twig represented the approach of a psycho killer. When that train of thought began, I learned it was time to just throw in the towel. Far better than a weapon, I found? A couple of fellow observers. Even with just one other person with me, the place went from scary to friendly and familiar.

Always bring a cell phone on observing expeditions. Not necessarily because it will be handy in case of trouble with bad guys, but in case somebody has car trouble that can’t be resolved and needs a tow. Or, worse, someone has a medical emergency. A cell is worth ten times its weight in Walther PPKs.

Maintenance of the Site

Often, if you are formally leasing a piece of land you’ll be expected to take care of its upkeep. Not just to include the above-mentioned grass cutting, but care of the access road. Members’ cars put some deep ruts in it during the damp spring season? It will be up to y’all to get them filled in. It’s best to have a standing club “Dark Site Committee” as a vehicle to get things like this taken care of and paid for.

You’re not leasing a piece of land, just using it thanks to the kindness of the owner? Don’t wear out your welcome. Even if you’re not obligated to get those ruts filled in, do it anyway (or get a check to the owner). As for the site itself, make sure than when the group leaves it is as much as possible in the same condition as when you arrived. No trash, no cigarette butts, etc. If the owner’s home is nearby, keep the hee-hawing down in the middle of the night. Yeah, know that meteor was pretty, but don’t holler “GOOD ONE!” at the top of your lungs at two a.m.

Visitor Control

Yes, it’s OK to invite a prospective club member to the dark site, but…  Make it clear that that is a one-time good deal and that regular access to the club dark site requires a paid membership (and possibly an additional dark site fee to cover site maintenance). If you don’t, the word will eventually get out, and you’ll have people you don’t know and don’t know anything about showing up at your observing field.

Finally…

Enjoy observing from a safe, secure, and dark location! How do you best do that? That’s a story for next time.


Sunday, April 09, 2017

 

Issue #538: Is This the End?


Certainly not. The Blog from Chaos Manor South has been rolling along for ten years, and I have every intention of continuing it into the foreseeable future. B-U-T. For a number of reasons, I’m backing away from weekly updates—at least for now.

The Astro Blog actually began considerably more than ten years ago, well before it came to Blogger.com. It was first offered on AOL’s long-gone dark ages blog service, blogger.aol.com. What was it like then? It was short and it came out irregularly. I published when I wanted to, whether that was a week after the previous entry or a month.

It’s been obvious to me for some time that the Blog can’t continue as is on a weekly basis. So, what should I do? Shorten it or publish less frequently?

I’ve demurred on “shorter.” One of the joys of doing a blog is that, unlike in a magazine article, I can stretch out. If a subject needs 3,000 words, it can have 3,000 words. That leaves “less frequently.” How less frequently will it be? I’m considering every other week as a reasonable schedule. But don’t hold me to that. It might be “once a month.” On the other hand, if there’s something I really need to talk over with you, only a week might elapse between entries.

Is this the way things are going to be from here on out, then? Not necessarily. When the current semester ends and I have a whole summer of semi-idleness before me, we could get back to once-a-week. Don’t count on that, but I suppose it could happen. How will you know when the Blog is updated? Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter.

So, what’s an Uncle Rod True Believer to do on Sunday mornings? If you are new to the flock, there are months and months and months of archived articles for you to peruse. I like to think most of them are as useful and as much fun as they were when they were first published.

Do you find this disturbing? If you do, THANK YOU. It’s been my pleasure to bring this blog to you almost every Sunday year after year, and I am constantly amazed and gratified at how much of a looked-forward-to routine it’s become for many of you. That is reward enough for the labor that has gone into this and is THE reason I intend to continue the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

 

Issue #537: The Novice Files: Star Charts Part I


When we last left off with the Novice Files, we’d talked about stars, constellations, and catalogs of stars and deep space objects. This time we’ll be dipping a toe into the somewhat deep water of star charts, “sky maps.” Like that guy  standing on the corner in Hollywood hawking his wares says, “You can’t find your way to the stars’ homes without a map.”

Basic Star Charts

You’ve got to have star charts if you’re going to learn how to use star charts. If you want to begin cheaply, I suggest these maps from Sky & Telescope, which cost just a couple of dollars, an equatorial star chart (SC001) and a north circumpolar star chart, SC002 (they have a south circumpolar chart, too). These simple paper maps have been around for decades, will teach you a lot about both the sky and star charts, and will remain useful as long as you do astronomy.

Let’s look at the equatorial star chart first. As the name implies, this chart is centered on the Celestial Equator, the imaginary line in the sky that divides the sky globe into Northern and Southern Celestial Hemispheres. The Equator on this map is the horizontal, triple, hash-marked line that divides the chart in two. Everything above the line is the Northern Celestial Hemisphere, and everything below is the Southern Celestial Hemisphere.

Intersecting the Celestial Equator at two points is a curving, sine-wave-like line. That is the Ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun through the sky. Why is it curved? As we learned previously, due to the tilt of Earth’s axis the path of the Sun moves north and south in the sky over the course of the year. When the Sun’s path is as far to the North as it goes, we have summer in the Northern Hemisphere. When it is as far to the south as possible, it’s Winter (and summer in the Southern Hemisphere).

You’ll further note that the ecliptic is marked with dates. Those dates represent the position of the Sun at noon on that date with relation to the background stars. On June 1, for example, you’ll find the Sun in the midst of the stars of the constellation Taurus. Finally, the places where the Ecliptic intersects the Equator are the Equinoxes, the Autumnal and Vernal Equinoxes.

A portion of the equatorial chart...
What was the first thing that probably caught your attention on the chart? The stars and constellations. The stars are represented by dots of varying sizes. The bigger the dot, the brighter the star. The range of stars shown on this simple map goes from -2 at the bright end to 6 on the dim end. Actually, while there are a few stars down to magnitude 6 shown, most are left off of this large-scale chart. A magnitude 6 star is the dimmest star most people can see with their naked eye from a reasonably dark site.

How does stellar magnitude work? It’s a logarithmic scale. A magnitude 1 star is 2.5 times dimmer than a magnitude 0 star, and a magnitude 2 star is 2.5 times dimmer than a magnitude 1 star. There are objects, like the planet Venus, the Sun, and the Moon that are brighter than magnitude 0, so there are negative magnitude values as well. Something with a magnitude of -1 is 2.5 times brighter than something that shines at magnitude 0.

You’ll notice that every star on the chart is identified, either by its proper name if it has one, a Greek “Bayer” letter, or a Flamsteed Number, all of which we went over in the last edition of the Files. You’ll also see there are a few deep sky objects scattered amongst the stars, but just a few; mostly the brightest Messier objects. There’s a key at the top of the chart next to the magnitude scale that identifies deep sky object symbols, allowing you to tell if an object is a nebula, galaxy, or star cluster.

But how do you find things on the map? The same way you do on a terrestrial map, using latitude and longitude. As we learned previously, celestial latitude is declination, and celestial longitude is right ascension. The right ascension scales run across the top and bottom of the chart, showing distances east and west of the Vernal Equinox (located at 0h right ascension), while the declination scales are, naturally, on the right and left, since declination is position north and south of the Celestial Equator.

There are two ways to use the declination and right ascension scales. You can, most of all, use them to locate objects. If you have the right ascension and declination of Sirius, the Dog Star, for example (from a catalog or from a Google search, perhaps), you can easily find the star on the chart.
First, locate Sirius’ right ascension, 6h 45m, on the scale at the top or bottom of the chart (each little tic is 5’). Place an index finger on that. Now find -16-degrees on the right or left dec scales (each tic is one degree). As you’ll recall, a minus declination is a south declination, so you’ll be on the part of the scale below the Celestial Equator. Place your other index finger on -16-degrees. Now, run your two fingers down and across. Where they meet will be, approximately anyway, the location of Sirius.

The circumpolar chart...
The other way to use the scales is to use them to find the declination and right ascension of an object. We see where Sirius is, but what are its coordinates? Place an index finger on Sirius, go straight up or down to the right ascension scale, and you’ll have its R.A. Move your other finger straight left or right to the declination numbers, and you’ll have its dec.

In addition to stars and a few deep sky objects, the chart shows the constellations, the “stick figure” star patterns we introduced a few weeks back. The Sky & Telescope charts use a set of stick figure designs sometimes referred to as “traditional” that are in my opinion the clearest and most easily remembered shapes for the star figures. One question I’m occasionally asked is “What is the right ascension and declination of a constellation?” Since the star patterns cover a fairly large area of the sky, the way you do that is either to use a point in the middle of the stick figure, or to use the constellation’s brightest star as your reference point.

The Circumpolar Chart

While using the declination scale on the equatorial chart, you may have noticed it stops at 60-degrees and -60-degrees, the chart is cut off to the north and south. Why is that? Think back to elementary school. Likely there was a map of the world on the wall, probably a Mercator map, a map using the Mercator projection system. What else might you remember? What I remember is that, weirdly, Greenland was bigger than South America on the map, something I knew wasn’t true.

“Spreading out” the curved surface of the earth onto a flat plane causes distortion north and south. That makes the smallish Greenland huge. If the equatorial star chart continued above 60-degrees north or south, there’d be this same sort of distortion—the far northern and southern constellations would be badly misshapen. The mapmakers here decided to avoid that by placing those constellations on a separate chart, which shows the last 30-degrees before you get to the pole.

Everything in the circumpolar (“around the pole”) chart is the same as on the equatorial chart with two exceptions. The right ascension scale goes around the outer circumference of the chart circle, and the declination scale cuts the map in half. To find right ascension of, say, the bright star at the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, Alkaid, move straight down from it to the periphery of the chart circle, landing on 14h 10m (approximately). Declination is slightly harder to find, but not much. In addition to the declination scale that cuts the circle in half, there are additional unnumbered scales with tick marks. By referencing the one closest to Alkaid, I see it’s one tick down from a major line of declination (each tick is one degree). Referring the labeled scale, I determine the star is at just a bit over 49-degrees north.

There’s one other interesting feature on the circumpolar chart, a big, dashed circle labeled “orbit of the precession of the pole.” What’s that? Well, have you ever played with a child’s top? What happens when it begins to run down? It begins to wobble. The same thing is happening with the Earth. Don’t worry; it isn’t going to fall over, but it is wobbling. Imagine placing a laser beam at the north pole. As the Earth wobbles, the laser will scribe a circle on the sky globe. The point where the laser beam touches the sky globe is, or course, the position of the North Celestial Pole. Precession, the wobble, is slow  and it would take 25,765 years for the Celestial Pole to move around the circle one time.

Because of Precession, as the long years roll by, the North Celestial pole moves among the stars. Looking at the circle on the chart, in the distant past, in the days of the ancient Egyptians, the pole was closest to the bright star Thuban in Draco. At that time Thuban was the North Star. In the distant future, the pole will be nearest Vega, and it will be a brilliant pole star. Naturally, the same thing is happening with the South Celestial Pole, and our colleagues to the south will eventually get a good pole star (their current one is relatively dim). Since the pole, 90-degrees declination, is moving against the background stars, the coordinate system and the Equinoxes are being dragged along with it. That’s why star atlases are often identified as “Epoch 2000” or similar. That means that the coordinates in the charts were in the places shown with reference to the stars in the year 2000.

There’s another result of this slow movement over the centuries:  it’s put astrology’s Sun signs off by one constellation. Find your birthday on the ecliptic and you may be surprised your “sign” is totally different from what’s given in the newspaper horoscope. According to the astrologers, I am a Cancer, but looking at the ecliptic on the chart shows that on my birthday, July 17, the Sun is actually closer to Gemini. The astrologers set up their Sun Signs many a long year ago and never bothered to change them despite Precession throwing everything increasingly out of whack. Oh, and as you'll see if you look along the path of the ecliptic on the equatorial chart, the band of constellations that lie along it, the Zodiac, includes our old friend Ophiuchus, which the astrologers somehow overlooked. 

So, you can find stuff on the equatorial chart now. But it would also be nice to know what was where in the sky for any given time. At first, it’s not immediately obvious how to do that with a chart like this that shows the whole (equatorial) sky, but it’s really simple.

Want to know what’s overhead? Find today’s date on the ecliptic. The constellations that lie long the line of right ascension that passes through that point on the ecliptic are those that are overhead at noon. Unfortunately, it’s not too helpful to know which constellations are overhead at noon. Midnight would be better. That’s easy to do, though. Say the right ascension line overhead at noon is 21h. Count 12 hours of RA to the east (left). That line, 9h, and the stars and constellations along it will be overhead at midnight. If you're interested in what's up at 11 p.m. go 13h to the left, and so on.

Monthly Star Charts

Determining what is "culminating" (straight overhead) for a given time is easy enough with the above system, but it’s not overly convenient. It would be nice to have a chart that shows how the evening sky looks at a given time of year, maybe for the current month. You can get that easily. Sky & Telescope includes an excellent monthly sky chart in each issue. One won’t lead you to tons of deep sky objects, but the brighter ones are marked, and the monthly chart is wonderful when you are just learning the constellations. The Sky & Telescope "annual," Skywatch, features 12-months of these charts under one cover.

Planispheres

What would be better still? Something, some sort of sky map, that would tell you exactly how the sky looks right now, at the current time and date. Certainly, there are plenty of computerized star charts, “planetarium programs,” that will do that, but we’re not quite ready for them. Instead, let’s begin with a simple analog computer.

You know what an analog computer is, right? Like a slide rule (blank looks from youngsters). A planisphere is a special sort of analog computer that can show how the sky looks for any time or date. It’s very simple—no batteries, no lights, no screen, just a couple of pieces of paper or plastic—but this device has helped generations of amateur astronomers.

A “sky wheel,” as some people call planispheres, is as above in two parts: a round wheel on which the sky is printed, and a stationary piece with a window. Around the sky wheel’s periphery are dates, and around the stationary piece are times. Line up the current time (or the time you are interested in) with the date and the planisphere will show the way the sky is laid out at that time/date.

It gets better. Set the planisphere for the current date/time, go outside, hold it over your head with the arrow or letter on the stationary part that indicates “north” pointed north, so that the west side of the planisphere lines up with actual western horizon and east and south line up with actual eastern and southern horizons, and you’ll be looking at a chart that not only shows what’s where in the sky, but which corresponds to actual directions in the sky.

Using the planisphere to show how the sky looks at a given date and time is one way to use it. There’s another way, though. You can use the planisphere to tell you when some event will occur. When will Orion rise on a given date? Turn the sky wheel so Orion is just above the eastern horizon. Then find the date you are interested in. The time Orion will be in that position will be opposite that date.You can also find the date when Orion will be rising at, say, 10 p.m. Locate 10 p.m. and read the date opposite it. Simple, neat, elegant.

A planisphere is very useful no matter what your level of experience in astronomy, and I always keep one in my accessory box. Where do you get a star wheel? Sky & Telescope sells a nice one. One of the better planispheres I’ve used over the years is made by David Chandler. You can even find them in book stores, including a cool oversize model by my friend David Levy (of Shoemaker – Levy fame, natch).

Are there any gotchas to planispheres? Only a few. In the spring most of us have to move our clocks forward for daylight savings time. While we can move the hands of the clock to suit ourselves, however, we can’t grab the sky and move it forward. That means planispheres always work on standard time. If DST is in effect and you want to know how the sky will look at 9 p.m., you must set the planisphere for 8 p.m.

Looking at the Sky & Telescope planispheres on the webpage, you’ll notice star wheels are sold for specific latitude ranges, 30N, 40N, etc. They are tailored so their northern and southern horizons are at the proper (approximate) declinations. In truth, even if all you can find is a 40-degree one and you live at 30-degrees, or vice versa, that “wrong” planisphere will still be quite usable.

Finally, because the sky on a planisphere is just a map printed on paper or plastic, it can’t depict the planets, which move among the "fixed" stars. That is where computer planetariums come in. And that subject, getting started with computerized charts, will be up next for the vaunted Novice Files. Till then…

Sunday, March 26, 2017

 

Issue #536: Deep Sky Imaging in Seven Easy (Sorta) Steps


All those cables!
We’ve spent the last several weeks setting you up with a telescope, mount, camera, and guide system. Now it is finally time to get outside with all that gear (assuming you, unlike me, have clear skies) and use it to capture the deep sky wonders of Spring.

Step One:  Set Up

Naturally you’ve got to assemble the telescope and mount. But where should you assemble them? Unless your backyard is really, really horrible light pollution wise, I strongly council you to use the good, old back forty the first couple of times you work with the new gear. You’ll be dealing with a bunch of unfamiliar equipment and some complex tasks, and it’s always easier to do that at home where you can run inside for a look at a manual (or for a quick drink if you get really stressed) under white light rather than squinting at the instructions with a red flashlight at a dark site.

Anyhow, set up tripod and mount and level them. How precise does level need to be for a German equatorial? Technically, you don’t have to level the mount at all. All it needs is to be level enough so that it doesn’t tip over.  In some cases, being close to level can make polar alignment easier, however. Level won’t affect polar alignment, period, but being near level means the mount’s altitude and azimuth adjusters won’t interact. When you move in altitude, it doesn’t also affect azimuth, and vice-versa, making it quicker to dial in alignment.

Next, attach the counterweight(s) to the declination shaft. Always mount the weights first, followed by the telescope. You will be mighty unhappy if you do the reverse, your R.A. lock isn’t secure, and the telescope slams into the tripod. When tearing down at the end of the run, reverse that. Remove the telescope first, then the weights. Once the scope is safely on the mount, install everything you’ll be placing on the tube:  guide-scope and camera, imaging camera, finders, etc.

Balance is very important if an inexpensive GEM is to track well, so spend enough time with that to get it exactly right. First, decide which side of the Meridian you’ll be imaging on, east or west, and balance accordingly. You’ll always want to be slightly east heavy. If you are going to be imaging on the West side of the Meridian, you should be “scope heavy.” On the east side? “Counterweight heavy.”

Polar alignment with Sharpcap...
Balance in R.A. first. Point the scope north, lock the declination lock and, with the counterweight down and halfway up the shaft (if you don’t know approximately where it should be), undo the R.A. lock at least partway and move the mount in R.A. so the counterweight bar is level. Do not let go of the scope. Now, still without completely letting go, allow the scope or weight to rise or sink. When you’ve determined which way the weight needs to go on the shaft, up or down, return the mount to counterweight down position, lock the R.A. lock and move the counterweight as required. Return the mount to counterweight bar level, and see if balance is perfect. Keep on going with this procedure until it is.

Now for the East heavy bit. When you are in perfect balance, move the weight about ½-inch up the shaft if you are imaging to the west, and ½-inch down the shaft if you are imaging to the east. That should be more than enough to ensure the R.A.  gears remain constantly meshed in the interests of good tracking.

For declination balance, return the mount to the counterweight bar level position, lock the R.A. lock and, holding on to the telescope, release the declination lock. When you know which way the scope needs to go in the mount saddle, forward or back, return to the counterweight down position, move the scope (carefully) as required return to the counterweight bar level position, and check. Keep going till the scope is balanced in declination.

What if your mount, like many in this class, is a little stiff on the declination axis and is somewhat difficult to balance? Don’t worry about it too much. Your mount is not tracking in declination, and if you’ve done polar alignment well, PHD shouldn’t have to issue many guide corrections on that axis. Good R.A. balance is far more important; declination balance can be “approximate” without hurting anything.

Step Two: Polar Alignment

If you are using a polar alignment borescope, Polemaster, Sharpcap, or the Kochab’s Clock method, do polar alignment now. None of these methods require the scope to be powered up and tracking, so it’s convenient to do the polar alignment before the mount is all festooned with cables and hand controls (I use Sharpcap these days). Take your time and do as good a polar alignment as you possibly can; you’ll thank me later.

Step Three:  Hooking Up

Connecting to the mount...
Plug in all the cables and the telescope’s hand control. You’ll have at least four and maybe five cords to deal with:  Power cable, serial cable for scope control, imaging camera USB connection, guide camera USB connection, and an ST-4 cable if you’re going to guide through the mount’s auto-guide port. Try to do a neat job with the cords, arranging them so they are not prone to snagging on the mount or tripod—which will ruin your guiding. Don’t forget to attach dew heater strips, dew heater controller, and dew shield if you need them in your environment.

Step Four:  Goto Alignment

Take care of goto alignment now. Do whatever procedure is required to get the mount going to its gotos. How exactly do you line up the alignment stars, though? You can choose one of two methods. You can either remove the camera from the telescope and temporarily replace it with diagonal and eyepiece, or you can use the camera to do the alignment. In the beginning, it may be easier to remove the camera and do the goto alignment with an eyepiece.

If you do use the camera, you’ll, of course, need to turn it on (and the laptop and its software if you are tethering to a PC), and center the alignment stars on the camera’s display or the laptop screen. Since alignment stars are bright, one will allow you to get rough focus, too.

If you choose to use Celestron’s AllStar Polar Alignment, which is built into the hand control firmware, take care of that once goto alignment is done—ASPA requires the goto alignment be accomplished first. If you do a declination drift polar alignment (horrors), now is also the time to do that, since having the telescope tracking during the procedure makes things much easier and is practically required.

Step Five:  Focus

The Double Cluster is an easy and pretty target...
If you goto aligned using the DSLR, you’ve got focus roughed in, and can now do a fine focus procedure. If you used an eyepiece instead of the camera, however, get rough focus with the imaging camera at this time. If the last alignment star was a good, bright one, stay on it and use it to focus.

To get in the focus ballpark, adjust the focuser on the telescope (I am a big fan of remote moto-focus for imaging) until the bright star is as small as you can make it and dimmer field stars begin to appear and sharpen. Exposure? I like one to two seconds; that allows me to see results quickly after tweaking focus. Set camera ISO as high as needed to get a good image of the stars. If you are way out of focus, you may need to max ISO out and increase exposure time till you detect the big round globe of a star (in a refractor). Once it is closer to focus, back off on ISO and exposure for a less overexposed star image.

When the field stars are as small as possible by eye, tweak focus with a fine-focus method of choice, which may be a Bahtinov focus mask, or a focusing routine built into imaging software (like Nebulosity) if you are tethering the camera.

Step Six:  Acquire Target and Compose Shot

Rough focus done, I interface my planetarium program (Stellarium these says) to the GEM. I start Stellarium (or whatever), and connect it to the telescope mount, that is. How? I invariably use the ASCOM telescope driver system, even if the program on the laptop, like Stellarium, has built-in telescope drivers. Why? Because ASCOM includes a little onscreen telescope HC that allows me to move the mount (at different rates) from the computer. That means I don’t have to get up and walk out to the scope and HC, press a direction button to center the object, walk back to the computer, etc.

A Bahtinov Mask makes fine focusing easy...
Alright, time to get on our first subject. What should that be? Even if you are at least somewhat experienced in deep sky imaging, begin with something easy with this new rig. This time of year, perhaps a nice winter open cluster over in the west like M35 or M37 or the Double Cluster. One important consideration given the economical mounts we’re using? Stay away from the Meridian. These GEMs just don’t track well in that area. Don’t image an object that will come within 10-degrees of the Meridian before your sequence is done, and don’t begin imaging an object until it is at least 10-degrees past the Meridian.

Once the scope goto stops, take an exposure long enough to reveal your target to see how the composition of the shot looks. If the subject is not centered, or just not framed the way I want it, I use the ASCOM HC to fix that. I keep the exposures short enough to make framing easy, maybe referencing a bright star in the frame if the object doesn’t quite show up in 1 – 3-second shots.

What if the target object is not in the field of the camera at all when the goto slew is done? That’s not much of a concern these days for most mounts, but if you have a problem, a quick solution is to slew to a nearby bright star, center it with the aid of your finder and “sync” on it. You should then be able to slew back to the target and have it in the frame. Oh, before you do that, be sure it really isn’t in the frame. If the target is a dimmer one, increase exposure and ISO and see if it appears.

When the subject is properly centered fire up PHD2 and get auto-guiding going. The main gotchas there? Make sure the guide scope is well-focused and that the guide star you’ve chosen is neither too dim nor too bright (saturated). When you put the cursor on a star, PHD2 will tell you all about that. Some imagers believe the guide star should be slightly out of focus for best guiding, but I’ve found I get better results from sharp stars.

When the mount is guiding, I go back to the imaging camera and do a test exposure. How long should that test subframe be? That depends on the sky and the subject. If I’m in the backyard, going much beyond a minute causes the background sky to brighten up so much that processing can be difficult later. At my dark site, I’ll expose for 2 – 5-minutes. Exposure also depends on the subject. An open cluster like M37 will be just fine in 30-second – 1-minute subs. The Horsehead Nebula will not be.

One important thing to remember is that while you’ll be stacking many shorter sub-frames into a finished exposure, you still have to have each individual exposure long enough to pick up all the detail you need. Stacking subframes will make the final result smoother and less noisy, but will not show any detail not present in the individual subframes. Longer subframes are always better.

Get your guiding going on...
What should camera ISO (nee “ASA”) be set to? Normally, use as low a value as you can to capture the detail you want while keeping noise down. The higher the ISO, the noisier the image will be (and the brighter a light polluted background). I rarely go above ISO 1600, and try not to exceed 800 in the backyard if possible. Naturally, ISO and exposure time interact. In general, I’ve found it better to go with a lower ISO and a longer exposure when possible.

Also examine the test exposure for signs of star trailing. Assuming PHD is not going wacky on you, you’ve got a good polar alignment, and the seeing is OK, that should not be a problem at the 400 – 600mm focal lengths we’re using. If the stars don’t look right, go back to PHD and make sure it’s still guiding well (bring up the graph as shown in the image here). If it isn’t, you’ll have to troubleshoot.

If the stars are eggs or worse, first make sure the values you’ve entered for the guiding parameters are close to those we outlined here. One variable that can change from night to night is the guide camera’s exposure. While mounts in this class tend to do best with 1 – 1.5-second guide exposures, if seeing is not good a somewhat longer one can improve guiding. There’ll be less tendency for PHD to try to guide on movement caused by seeing.

Step Seven:  Expose

Time to do what we came for, take an exposure sequence. Set the laptop program or the intervalometer to take a number of subframes at the exposure value you determined was best. How many? As many as possible. Even on an easy object like M37, more subs always make for a better looking finished picture. I generally aim for 20 - 30.

Before beginning the sequence, though, let’s put the dark frame question to bed. Since a DSLR’s sensor chip is not cooled, dark frames are mandatory to eliminate the false stars of thermal noise. There are two ways to subtract dark frames from subs, manually or automatically.

If you go manual, finish the imaging run and then, just before packing up for the night, cover the telescope objective and shoot subframes equal in number to the maximum number of lights you’ve taken in a sequence. For example, if you did one 20 and one 30-subframe sequence, take 30-darks. If you used different exposures on different sequences, you’ll have to do more than one sequence of darks—dark frame exposure values need to be the same as their corresponding lights. The darks will be subtracted from the light frames during image processing. This way of working is certainly acceptable, but, in addition to being labor intensive, it isn’t as effective as it could be in my opinion.

Me, I go automatic on dark frames for a couple of reasons. Not only do I not have to worry about messing with darks at the end of the evening or during processing, I think automatic darks are more effective.

How do you do auto dark frames? DSLRs allow you to select a mode called “long exposure noise reduction” (or a similarly named menu item). Engage that, and the camera will take a dark frame after each exposure and automatically subtract it. Yes, that means an imaging run will take twice as long as it otherwise would—30-minutes of subs will take an hour to complete—but I think the results are just better.

Expose!
Why would the results be improved by taking a dark after each light? Because the temperature of the DSLR’s sensor chip will vary throughout the night. Ambient temperature will drop throughout the evening, and, as an exposure sequence goes on, the internal temperature of the camera due to its electronics will tend to rise. To be most effective, a dark should be taken as soon after its matching light subframe as possible, so the temperature it was exposed at is close to that of the light frame.

OK, set that computer or intervalometer for the number of exposures at the required exposure value, push the “go” button and…and…wander around and do something else while the exposure sequence completes. I usually just go inside and watch TV. If I’m at the dark site, I’ll cadge looks through my buddies’ telescopes. I’ll come back periodically and see how things are going—especially how PHD is guiding—but I rarely encounter problems unless clouds have moved in and my guide star has been lost, temporarily or permanently.

Once the sequence is finished, it’s time to go on to the next target. How many targets should you do? That’s for you to decide, but I tend to believe fewer targets, maybe just one or two per evening, and more subframes (and maybe longer exposures) is the way to go.

Done, I’ll pack everything up and head for home if I’m at the dark site, or, if I’m in my secure backyard, I’ll just cover the refractor and GEM with my Telegizmos cover and only take the computer inside—which is a much more pleasant way to end an evening under the stars than having to disassemble everything and carry it back into the house when I’m tired.

And next? Next is processing the images, but that is a story for some other Sunday. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

 

Issue #535: The Final Piece of the Puzzle


In our pre-spring observing season drive to get novices (and maybe even a few not-so-novices) set up with a rig for deep sky imaging, we’ve addressed mounts, telescopes, and, last week, auto-guiding setups. This Sunday we’ll finish with suggestions for a low-cost camera. I’ve talked about imaging cameras with y’all fairly recently, but the difference is that this time I’ll try as hard as I can to keep the cost as low as possible.

So, you need a camera and a few accessories. Where do you start? The first question to answer is, “Do I want color?” While a monochrome CCD/CMOS astronomical camera can take color images by exposing successive frames through three or more colored filters, it’s not something you want to face when you are just getting off the ground in imaging. Unless you enter the ranks of the hard-core someday, you may never want to face it. In the beginning you will find just processing a “one-shot” color image enough of a challenge. Properly calibrating and combining three + separate frames into a color frame and then stacking and processing a bunch of those? Uh-uh.

So, it’s a color camera, a one-shot color camera, you want. How does one work? A color camera is different from a monochrome camera in that red, green, and blue color filters are built into the sensor chip. Software, either in the camera or in an image processing program, automatically combines the R, G, and B to produce a full color image. That is usually transparent to the user—with a digital single lens reflex (DSLR), anyway. You take a picture, you see a color image, end of story.

Some astrophotographers say a monochrome camera can produce visibly higher resolution images because it doesn’t waste pixels on the production of a color image. In truth, in the beginning at least, and especially on deep sky objects, you won’t notice any difference.

The next question is “CCD or CMOS?” That is not much of a question today. Unless you are interested in some special applications, mostly having to do with obtaining scientific data, there is no reason to choose a CCD chip over a CMOS chip. Today, the formerly preferred CCD has lost ground to CMOS sensors even for use in “astronomical” cameras. CMOS chips are now very sensitive and very low in noise. At any rate, almost all cameras in our price range, which I am topping out at 450 dollars, have CMOS chips, so the choice has already been made for you.

What a ZWO ASI120MC can shoot...
Next up, cooling. “Does a camera for taking long-exposure images need to have its sensor chilled to reduce thermal noise?” Today, probably not. With some camera/chip combos, an internal fan, at least, can be helpful to reduce the false stars of thermal noise, but the low-noise characteristics of today’s sensors usually means subtracting a dark frame is enough to deal with thermal noise.

And the Final Jeopardy Question… “Astro cam or DSLR?”  There are some interesting low cost astronomical cameras coming on line, like those from China’s ZWO, and I’ve actually taken credible deep sky image with one of their 1/3-inch cameras that cost a measly 200 dollars. However, I think for most of us a DSLR is just a much more sensible choice. A much more sensible choice.

Why is a DSLR better? There are several reasons, but there is one real big one:  when you’re not taking pictures of the night sky, you can be wowing everybody at your mother-in-law Margie’s birthday party with your snapshotting skills. There’s also that big elephant in the living room. Like many wannabe astrophotographers, a few nights wrestling with camera and scope may convince you you are actually more of a visual observer. If that be the case, you can still get years of use and enjoyment out of the DSLR, even if you never take another astrophoto with it.

Another big plus (for astro imaging) of the DSLR? Their relatively big chips. A less than 500 dollar camera will have an APS-C size chip. Lower cost astro-cams tend to have small chips that restrict your field of view, focal length for focal length, and also tend to make guiding more critical. 

Finally, while I control my DSLRs with a program running on a laptop (“tether them,” as we say in the photography business), which makes focusing and framing much easier, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to have a computer out in the field when you are taking pictures. You can do just as we did in the SLR days:  telescope, mount, camera. You will, as in those SLR days, need a remote camera release (an intervalometer, preferably), but that is it.

OK, so which DSLR? The safe thing to say is still “Canon.” In some ways they still lead the pack in astrophotography. The Canons are remarkably low in noise over long exposures, and are easy to use in the field with a laptop if you choose to do that. Things are changing now, but until recently camera control software (like Nebulosity) was unheard of for other brands.

SCT Prime Focus Adapter
There’s also Canon’s longstanding involvement in our game. While Nikon and, now, Pentax are coming on strong for astrophotography, until the last couple of years only Canon acknowledged people were actually using their cameras for astronomical imaging and produced cameras with astronomy in mind.

Canon is a safe choice, in my opinion, but which one of their many DSLRs? If you are buying new and must keep the price tag low, the Rebel T6, which is available for about 450 dollars, is a remarkable value. Not only do you get a DSLR that will perform well for astro-imaging or anything else, you get a pretty good (zoom) kit lens for use in wide-field astrophotography or at Margie’s above mentioned b-day party.

Just don’t want a Canon for whatever reason? The equivalent Nikon is the D3300, which is even less expensive than the Rebel. And it can perform very well for astronomical imaging. BUT… Computer control options for this camera are (very) limited—it is not supported by the major Nikon astrophotography program, BackyardNikon—so if you want to tether camera to computer, a Canon is a far better choice.

How about buying a used camera? Is that a good idea? That depends. A fairly recent camera or seldom used older camera can push prices even lower. A perfectly serviceable older Rebel, like a 450D, for example, goes for 150 or fewer dollars with a kit lens and a few accessories. Be careful here, though. While the Rebels, Canon’s introductory DSLRs, and Nikon’s comparable models are well-made, they are not professional grade cameras and won’t stand up to real abuse. So, when considering an inexpensive camera it’s best to limit yourself to one that’s for sale locally so you can examine it in person and make sure it’s fully functional.

Accessories

Prime Focus Adapter

Prime focus adapter (1.25-inch)...
Once you’ve got a camera, of course you’ll need accessories. You always need accessories in astronomy, you know that!  First off, you will need a prime focus adapter in order to connect camera to telescope. “Which” depends on your scope style. SCT prime focus adapters screw onto the SCT’s rear port. Those for other telescope designs, like refractors, typically have 1.25-inch or 2-inch nosepieces and slide into the scope’s focuser. I like the 2-inch models, not because you have to worry about vignetting or something like that with an APS-C size sensor, but because they allow me to dispense with a 1.25 – 2-inch eyepiece adapter and seem to provide a more secure mounting arrangement.

T-ring

You’ll also need a t-adapter for your camera, aka a “t-ring.” This is a, yes, ring shaped adapter with T-threads on one end to screw onto the prime focus adapter, and a lens mount for your particular camera on the other end. These two things in hand, you can remove the camera’s lens, mount the combo of T-ring/prime focus adapter in its place, and then mount the camera on your scope by inserting everything into the focuser or screwing the prime focus adapter onto the rear port of an SCT.

Intervalometer

As you may know, DSLRs, most of them anyway, and certainly all the Canons, can’t expose for more than 30-seconds without the addition of a remote shutter release. Even if your camera could expose for longer without a remote, you’d still want one as it allows you to trip the shutter without bumping the scope and causing trailed stars.

T-ring
An intervalometer is a remote shutter release, but it’s also much more. Not only will one of these (usually) wired controls allow you to trip the shutter from a distance and expose for as long as you like, it will allow you to shoot sequences of images. Say 30 3-minute exposures, which is exactly what we want to do. An intervalometer allows you to do many of the things a tethered computer would allow you to do, but without the computer. How much? A Vello is about 50 bucks and a genuine Canon is about three times that. Guess which one I’d choose?

Memory Card

If you’re not using a tethered PC, you’ll have to have a memory card, digital "film" on which to store your images. An SD card (used by almost all DSLRs, now) with at least 64gb capacity is my recommendation—you’d be surprised how much space an evening’s images can take up. Get a good, decently fast card. I like the Sandisk ones. About 40-bucks.

Battery

If you’re going to use a battery, make sure you keep an extra, or, better, two extras in your gadget bag. During long exposures, the camera is drawing current from the battery continuously, and you’re unlikely to get a full evening out of one cell, especially on cold nights. There are lots of third party batteries available, but I have had noticeably better performance out of genuine Canon, so that’s what I recommend here, the real deal, for a change.

Power Supply

Yes, batteries are a problem during astrophotography, so don’t use one, or use a real big one. Hop on over to Amazon and buy yourself either a 12vdc or 120vac power brick for your Canon (or whatever). I do most of my shooting at locations with mains power, so I prefer the AC option. The DC supplies have cigarette lighter plugs that will plug right into your jumpstart battery pack.

What do you plug one of these things into on the camera end? These power supplies have little plastic (wired) widgets that take the place of the normal battery in the battery compartment and supply power to the camera that way. I’ve found one of the inexpensive—less than 15-dollars—units on Amazon to work just fine, but Canon will sell you one for considerably more if you like.

Anything else? Well, a few things, maybe. If you are new to DSLR photography, you probably want a camera bag, a gadget bag, to keep camera and lenses and, well, gadgets, together. A nice piggyback bracket so you can mount DSLR and lens on your telescope tube is a nice addition and you may find you like doing wide-field shots from dark locations. A lenspen is good to keep your lens’ surface pristine. A broadband light pollution filter can be helpful if, like me, you do some of your imaging from an at least somewhat light-polluted backyard. And that is really more than enough to get you started.

You’ve now got all the pieces to the complicated astrophotography puzzle, but how the heck do you put them together? We’ll talk about that, about getting started with all this stuff, next week.

Addendum:  How good can a VX be?

Auto-guiding wise, that is. Some of you considering a Celestron Advanced VX mount (or the similar mounts on the market today) have expressed grave concern about my statement last week that 2” (arc seconds) of RMS guiding error is about what you should expect of this group without some fine-tuning (of PHD’s Brain Icon settings, I mean).

Anyhow, while 2” is perfectly suitable for some image scale/camera pixel combos, naturally it would be nice to do a bit better with this inexpensive and highly portable GEM. So, I set about the other night to see how much and how easily I could tweak the VX.

Surprise! I really didn’t have to do much tweaking at all to get this modest mount’s RMS guiding error down. I did do a decent polar alignment, and I did spend some time carefully balancing the scope (east heavy with a little declination bias as well). As for the settings, I backed off on a couple of them. Cutting aggressiveness in half and reducing hysteresis as well. Oh, and, conversely, I increased Max Duration both for RA and declination.

The result? Despite OK but hardly great seeing, my errors were immediately halved with me getting just under 1” of RMS error most of the time. Even when my target got low in the sky, and seeing began to deteriorate, the error was just over 1”, easily good enough to yield round stars with an 80mm f/6.9 despite the fairly small (1/2-inch) sensor of the camera I was testing.

While I warned you not to start chasing lower and lower numbers with these GP/CG5 clone mounts merely for the sake of lower numbers, given the small amount of effort involved in this substantial improvement, the few minutes I spent was well worth it.

The other take-aways? People naturally worry about their guide-software settings, but what makes one of the very largest differences? Seeing. Without good seeing you will not see great guiding, so don’t start messing with your settings on an unsteady night. Oh, and good polar alignment is important for good guiding as well. Having to continually chase alignment-caused drift just muddies the water and makes guiding more difficult to get right. Finally, with this class of mounts, correct balance is just as important as polar alignment and seeing. If you want 1” or less guiding errors, you’ll likely need to rebalance if you move to a radically different part of the sky—cross the Meridian, etc. 

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