Friday, December 22, 2017

M45 Pleiades Cluster

This is the first official image out of my observatory!

Image Details:

  • Imaging Scope: AstroTelescopes 80mm ED Refractor
  • Imaging Camera: Nikon D7000
  • Guiding Scope: William Optics 66mm Petzval Refractor
  • Guiding Camera: Orion Starshoot Autoguider
  • Light Frames: 17*8 minutes @ ISO800
  • Flat Frames: 40
  • Bias Frames: 40
  • Dark Frames: 7
  • Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
  • Final single image processed in Photomatix Pro
  • Tweaked in Adobe Lightroom

I Now Have an Observatory! (aka "Going Off the Deep End")

Astronomy has been an on and off hobby for me, but since moving out to rural Texas, it's been more on than off, and that was the intent. We moved northwest of Liberty Hill, where skies are currently around Bortle 3 with the light dome from Austin to the south. One can clearly make out the Milky Way on a moonless night, and my property offers a big sky view with very low horizons all around. I'm sure more folks will settle into the area but believe we've moved far enough out that we'll be ahead of the sprawl for a long time.

Part of the move involved purchasing an observatory. I looked around at various options and studied pros and cons of various designs while also thinking about my own needs and preferences. I originally considered a dome, but of the available options at my price range they were either too expensive or looked too much like port-a-loos (according to my wife/financial officer). I really ultimately preferred a roll-off-roof design because it offered great sky views and more room to walk around and store stuff (again, given my budget). Also, it would look more like a shed than a pure observatory, the latter looking more expensive and perhaps more attractive to would-be thieves.

I explored different options ranging from building it myself to turn-key solutions. I'm not handy at the best of times, so my confidence with respect to the former option was very low. Exploring turn-key solutions, I inquired with several dedicated observatory builders. Most were friendly, but prices shot up quickly when discussing the various options that I needed. I also approached local barn/shed builders. Most declined right off the bat, a few were interested and promised to draw up plans. While waiting for such plans, I got in touch with a few folks from the local astronomy club who had put together an observing site about 1.5 hours west of me called Stellar Skies. It's a great bit of land where folks can pay for a small portion of it, with concrete pad included, and utilize it as they wish (temporary scope setups on weekends to permanent observatory builds with remote access). They have a chap there who builds roll-off roof observatories and who is also a professional framer/builder. After a few email exchanges, he agreed to come out this way and build me a 10'*12' roll-off roof within my budget! Great guy, this Jarret character - he owns a massive Dob and has earned various Astronomy League certificates for visual observing. He well-and-truly understood the intricacies of building observatories and asked all the right questions while putting it all together. (While he was building my observatory, he launched a formal company which can be seen here - Heaven's View Observatories: https://hvobservatories.squarespace.com/.)

So, it took Jarret about a month or so put the observatory together. He had other jobs and rain interfered with the construction site access (when it rains on my property it becomes a massive mud fest!). But, he got it done and it was complete by Thanksgiving weekend. The beauty of his design is that he uses steel beams for the roof rail supports, with a cross-beam welded support system. This means no warping over the years as might be experienced with wooden rail support systems. Once he was done, I painted the exterior and interior. I also built a corner desk unit and added some cheap but strong plastic shelving from Lowes hardware store. The floor isn't done yet, and I'm exploring options for that but leaning towards some matt black horse stall padding available at my local Tractor Suplly Company (yeehaw!). I'll also add a solar power system to keep my marine battery charged, which powers both my scope and laptop during imaging.

It really is a luxury in this hobby to have your own observatory. To be able to walk out and be imaging without barely any setup time is amazing and great fun. My mount, the Celestron CGEM, has a hibernate mode, so you can effectively turn it off and on later and the mount will still be perfectly polar aligned. So, you really do have a ton of time to really focus on the image, including obtaining your dark, flat and bias frames.

Anyway, finished product pictures are below, and you can see construction images on my FLICKR site here.







Sunday, November 12, 2017

Another Catch-Up Post

Not sure if anyone is still following this blog due to its inactivity. Not even sure if people really blog anymore, or just FaceBook and Twitter all the time instead, or whatever.

Been an eventful few months. The death of a close friend, a new job, a trip back home to Australia and a move to a new home. Some of these things I have experienced in the last few months have led me to live a little harder, chase some more dreams, value some things that I haven't on the past.

Anyway, astronomy...

Last month I was able to set my sights on Saturn with my relatively new astro imager, a ZWOASI120MC. Managed to capture a lovely shot, as seen below.

Image details:

 - Celestron C8 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope
 - Celestron CGEM mount
 - ZWO ASI120MC camera
 - Celestron 2X Barlow
 - 800 frames stacked in Autoskakkert2


It's the best image of Saturn I've ever captured. The conditions were probably 3-4/5, so a better image isn't far off but I now have to wait for next year. 

I've also been working on some wide field shots. We have moved out into the country, and have a property with spectacular night skies (bortle 3-4). The Milky Way is clearly visible, and the ability to shoot from my back yard is first-class. Below is a star trail shot I took with a lightning storm along the horizon.


As a result of moving out into the country, I have the ability to build an observatory which I am n ow in the middle of. More of that in the next post...

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Catching up - Moon, Venus & Eclipse

Okay, time to get the blog up to date! I'm not even sure if anyone comes here any more but I'll keep it going all the same.

Over the last couple of months, I have been testing out my new C8 OTA and New ZWO ASI120MC Camera combination. The skies here have been so-so, so I've been getting out when I can.

First, here's a pic of the camera on my C8 and CGEM configuration:


I'm using FireCapture freeware software to capture my video files from the camera. I like it a lot. It has different recommended settings based on the object you're shooting, and you can modify those settings as needed. Super-easy.

Here is a wide-field~ish shot of the moon:


...and a nice zoomed-in shot (i.e. camera + 2x barlow) of Copernicus:


I've tried imaging Venus, but getting some chromatic aberration, most likely due to a cheap barlow:


So, overall, not too shabby. Jupiter is rising earlier and earlier, so I'm looking forward to trying out the new gear on that marvelous gas giant. Until then...


Sunday, January 08, 2017

Rediscovering Planetary and Lunar

Last year was a bit of a bust. Between the weather, work and family, there weren't too many opportunities to get out under the night skies for me. Part of that involves driving further and further out of Austin, Texas, to escape the growing city lights. After some thought, I decided to plunge back into lunar and planetary astrophotography. You don't need dark skies for this, so I don't have to drive too far to image the moon and planets. My front garden would do just fine.

In that vein, I updated some astronomy equipment. Firstly, I acquired a C8 Celestron OTA second-hand. Came with a finder scope and terrific carrying case. This gives me a dedicated scope for lunar and planetary, and will later allow me to shoot more distant DSOs once I can attach my guiding setup to the scope.



Then, I was able to get a new lunar and planetary imager for Christmas. It's a ZWO ASI120MC camera, quite a step-up from the Philips Toucam I used all those years ago. You can see the full specs here, but the camera can also be used as an autoguider. Hmm. Image acquisition seems rather straightforward, using it with the FireCapture software which I like a lot (freeware!). It has different profiles for different planets and the moon built-in, so takes a lot of guesswork out of the various settings you need to make out in the field.


So, hopefully this new stuff will encourage me to get out more and take photos. Visually, the C8 is great. I needed to collimate it just a little to get it in shooting condition. It's offered great views of various objects so far, and I'm sure it will fir the astrophotography bill! The OTA is FASTAR compatible, so I'll check that out at some stage...

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Orion Rising

It's been a fair while since I have posted anything. Work and family life continue to make astronomy a tough pastime for me. However, I am committing to making a better go at it moving forward.

This past Thanksgiving, I spent a few days at my father-in-law's farm in Northwest Arkansas. He has killer skies, with the Milky Way being quite visible and M31 being easily naked eye visible. Despite a few high level aircraft contrails that persisted sometime after sunset, I snapped the shot below. You can clearly see the Orion constellation, with Sirius following from behind.

  • Nikon D7000
  • 18mm focal length
  • F2.8
  • ISO 3200
  • 25 second exposure
  • Processed in Lightroom