I'm waiting on some telescope upgrades to arrive to see if it's feasible to convert my Celestron Omni XLT 102 telescope on a CG4 mount to a computer controlled (possibly guided) rig. This would allow me to track objects and take longer exposures, without as much star trailing!April 11, 2021
My upgrade arrived and it appears to be working. I'm not yet sure how well, because it has been cloudy and raining so far this weekend. Allegedly there will be a break in the clouds around 4am. We'll see...April 19, 2021
Saturday night the clouds began to dissipate. The time to properly field test my mount upgrade had arrived! I setup everything in the side yard under partly cloudy Bortle 6 skies. It was very humid out as well. All that moisture in the air, coupled with the light pollution, made it difficult to see anything dimmer than a Magnitude 9. Difficult, but not impossible! I polar aligned my mount, and then aimed my telescope at Sirius. Using Starry Night 8 that came with my telescope, I synchronized my telescope to the bright star in my telescope's field of view. From there, I was able to find another nearby star in the software and direct the telescope to aim there. With my 25mm eyepiece, the target was always in the field of view. I would make minor adjustments with the mount's motor controls to center the new object, then synchronize the telescope again. Wash, rinse, repeat. This star hopping process allowed me to aim the telescope at objects in the sky that I could not see with the unaided eye. I will note that the further the next target was, the further from center it would be in the eyepiece. This seems to be because the telescope goes to the place in the sky where the object was when it received the order. The longer it takes to get there, the more Earth's rotation has moved it in the sky. The key is centering and synching it each time you go to a new object. Now, with that being said...
What dim objects did I observe? All of them. I wish. I first went to this part of the sky. It's loaded with visible galaxies. As I mentioned before, I had trouble seeing most of them, being that they're Magnitude 9 or dimmer. I did manage to take a picture of one galaxy, with it's core visible. In my excitement, I completely forgot to notate which galaxy it was! I did some checking on Messier objects with a magnitude I would've been able to see. Judging by the star patterns, I think it very well might be M81, Bode's Galaxy. Check out this edited picture and this edited screenshot to see if I'm right. I also was able to view some globular clusters. They were in the Magnitude 8 range and the details were astounding. I'm extremely eager to go to a darker sky and see more details of these galaxies and globular clusters! I'll keep ya posted. ;)April 21, 2021
Monday evening the skies were clear enough for some observing. I took the liberty of taking some pictures of what I was able to see. This time I kept track of what I was doing! Check out the results below. I even tried a 10 second exposure on M81 that was photobombed by a satellite. I suppose that's something to consider when the time comes to take longer exposures! Here's a video of the micro go-to upgrade of my mount in action. This is interesting to me because Polaris was not visible yet in the night sky. I aimed my mount in the general direction Polaris usually is, and the results were not terrible! Slewing to Pollux and then Castor and back to the Moon were not a problem with the low magnification eyepice and lack of polar alignment. What you see is me manually bringing the target closer to center after the mount stops. From there I synchronize on the target and hop to the next one. At the end, I'm using the digital zoom on the phone.
Speaking of longer exposures, my next mount upgrade will attempt to allow me to autoguide my telescope. This involves attaching a small guide scope with a camera on it. Guiding software will allow me to select a star in that camera's view, and follow it. It will send commands to the mount to maintain the star in the same field of view. Meanwhile, whatever I'm looking at through the main telescope should also appear to remain stationary. This will allow for longer exposures in photos. In order not to go crazy, I'm going to try this out using my phone at first for the 10 second (max I can do) exposure pictures. If the guiding works, I will get a proper dedicated astronomy camera. The guide camera I'm planning on getting likely will be taking some pictures as well. I mean, why not... right?April 27, 2021
Throughout the week, the forecast for Sunday changed from clear, to mostly clear, to partly cloudy, then back to clear. To say I was eager to get out and give my kit a good workout would be an understatement! It ended up being a nice night for observing. The temperature was colder than I anticipated. I ended up going to a relative's house in a Bortle 4 sky area. I did the same thing I did before while waiting for Polaris to become visible; I gazed at the moon. This time with my moon filter that I seldom use. It dims the bright satellite enough to not totally wreck your night vision. There was a hiccup with the new equipment, causing me to struggle fiding objects I wanted to at times. The add-on to the mount connects wirelessly to my laptop. That wireless network kept dropping. I suspected the cold, or perhaps interference, but last night it did the same thing at my place. I have parts arriving that will allow the telescope to communicate with my laptop over a wired connection. We'll see how that goes.
The very first object on my list I wanted to view gave me problems. It was this nearby black hole recently confirmed. I was able to find a bright star nearby to synch the scope with, and then told it to go to the star in question that is locked in orbit with the black hole. In hindsight, I probably should have done that at a higher magnification, because the stars I saw in the eyepiece did not match what I expected. Beyond that frustrating beginning, I was able to find nearly all the objects on my list, and some that weren't! The last thing I wanted to see was the ISS. I made a plan to do so. This wasn't an equipment failure though, it turns out I just didn't have a view of the horizon at that low angle. Bummer. You'll see star trailing in these recent pictures. This is because I had to use a longer exposure to capture some objects. I blame the bright moon. Shame on you moon! I had a special guest come into view while checking out M4. Some of these pictures of stars were taken because they have a nebula around them that I intend to revisit in the future. Others were taken because they're bright, well known stars.
Going back to the new parts coming for my telescope. I ordered another kit to allow the telescope to be guided automatically. This is cleverly called auto-guiding. What it means is, I will have another small scope (ordered) attached to my telescope, and it will have a camera attached to it (ordered and received). This camera will be connected to my computer, where software (probably PHD2) will allow me to select a star from the field of view. This allows the software to track the star, making it a guide star, and send commands to the telescope mount to maintain the star in the same position in the guide camera's field of view (FOV).May 9, 2021
Saturday night had an hour or so of clear skies once darkness arrived. I finally was able to test out my guide camera, attached to my guide scope. I thought about trying it out on my main scope, but that would've been a tad more of a challenge. The max resolution (1280x960) of this camera means I'd have a small field of view, and with the F10 focal ratio of my scope, I would be very zoomed in on objects. Also, given that I had limited time until the clouds rolled in, I went for the easiest test. When I aimed at the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), I tried various exposure times and gain setting to get a quick, one shot image that showed some structure in the galaxy. The end result was a 5s exposure in 8bit mono with gain set at 75.
I had also wanted to observe the NASA Wallops Island rocket launch last night, but it was scrubbed due to weather. It seems the skies bother us all sometimes!June 1, 2021
There hadn't been a clear night on a weekend for a long time. Saturday night was partly cloudy for a few hours, so I went out to test the auto-guiding setup. I didn't go prepared. When PHD2 was doing it's calibration, I didn't understand what was going on. When it said, "star lost," I would become irritated and stop the process, then start it over again. After several goes at this I gave up. I switched to the other test, which was checking out the stability of the WiFi on the go-to unit now that I made some changes to it's configuration. Those changed were made thanks to the email response from Astro Gadget's support team. They provided the web interface login information for the SimpleDreamEQ3 unit so I could make changes to the WiFi. It has 802.11b,g available, but for some r reason was trying to use 802.11n. Changing to 802.11g apparently has resolved that issue. I tried looking at some objects in the sky but the seeing was conditions were not good.
Last night was much better. My buddy invited me over to his place where the sky is a good bit darker. This time I let the calibration process in PHD2 continue. It went on much further than before, but would fail at the last step before guiding. I realized what probably was going on. The GuideDreamST4 kit from Astro-Gadget is a little quirky. The SimpleDreamEQ3 kit it connects to has an East and West setting for observing each side of the meridian. However, when the GuideDreamST4 is connected, it seems to swap those. I was looking East and had the kit set to East. When I set it to West, PHD2 was successful in achieving guiding. Yay! But wait, there's more! It guided for a few seconds then trouble arrived. My RA motor seems to have an issue. It might be the motor. It also might be the SimpleDreamEQ3 unit that controls it. The issue it has is that the RA continues to step in one direction. Often this can be stopped by nudging the RA control in the opposite direction. That probably isn't helpful though in auto-guiding. This issue is going to require further investigation, and perhaps another contact with the Astro Gadget support team.
After that process, I decided to switch back to the go-to and look at some things in the Eastern skies. That part of the sky is obscured at my home where I set up my telescope. I captured a few images through the guide scope with the guide camera. Two were of objects I'd already viewed, and two were new to me. The last one was purely accidental. While my friend was imaging M13, we took some views through my 25x70 Celestron Skymaster binoculars. We had some trouble finding M13, but once we did it was easily discernible. M4 was much easier to find. It was a bit dimmer, but still hard to miss. My buddy now wants his own pair of binoculars. I don't blame him! Later on, I had the scope synched to Antares and then slewed over to M4. That went well. I went back to Antares and tried to slew up to Rho Ophiuchi (ρ Ophiuchi) that I previously imaged with my cell phone. When the scope stopped its slewing, what I saw on the camera was not what I expected. I looked at the Starry Night software and zoomed into the area, and still could not recognize what exactly I was looking at. The clouds were beginning to roll in so we called it a night, but not before I took two images of that strange region.
This afternoon I browsed over to Astrometry to run some plate solving on them. Surprisingly, it solved it quickly. Here is the result. I went back into Starry Night and looked at that area. NGC 6114 doesn't show up when you zoom in. When I was trying to figure out where this was, I thought that M4 might be what was in the bottom right, but according to Starry Night's view (when zoomed in) there was no cluster in the upper left. I zoomed out and saw it, faintly. In that view I compared the RA/DEC of where I ended up to where I wanted to go. It appears the DEC motor did not move when the go-to attempt to Rho Ophiuchi was initiated. I've had this problem before and normally a quick nudge on the DEC hand control gets it moving. If the clouds weren't rolling in, I would've plate solved the image on the spot, and figured out what went wrong then corrected it. On the subject of plate solving, on Astrometry's successful results page there's a link on the bottom right to view your uploaded image in the World Wide Telescope. It has a nice overlay with a slider that you can use to compare what you captured with the much more detailed sky survey images. Here's what mine looked like before zooming in.
During the hiatus of updates, I decided not to go with the ASI294MC Pro camera. I had explored some topics on the Cloudy Nights' forum and saw that it has a few quirks that require experience in post processing to resolve, experience that I do not have. In boredom, I checked the forum's classified section after making that choice. Much to my surprise, there was an telescope mount for sale that I was looking for, the Celestron AVX. Normally this is priced at $899, I see that Celestron just raised it to $999. It's hardly in stock anywhere (like many astronomy related items). It was being sold used for $750! While contacting the seller, I stumbled upon a Canon Rebel T7i body for sale. This immediately jumped out because it's one of the entry level DSLR's recommended by Trevor from AstroBackyard. It seemed reasonably priced at $550 so I jumped on it. I ordered the necessary attachments (I hope) and intervalometer right away. Those have already arrived, the camera should arrive Friday. It's nearly time for some high resolution color photos through the telescope!June 7, 2021
I had one night off this week and it turned out to be a beauty! Kelby (Mr East Exposures) found a nearby Bortle 3 site. It had a couple nuances, but otherwise was completely worth it. My Canon Rebel T7i was collected from the Post Office earlier that morning. I'd never used a DSLR camera before, and did not prepare myself at all on how to use this one. What more could I need to know than shutter speed, ISO settings, and file format to save to? It turns out there is a lot more to know. Go figure! The good news is the T-Ring and 1.25" adapter I had purchased did work, as did the intervalometer. The not so good news is that I completely brainfarted on what ISO actually does. For some peculiar reason, I had this notion that higher ISO meant higher light gathering. I knew that was dependent on aperture and exposure time, yet set my ISO to 12800 for most of the pictures I did take. Let's just say that I was lucky to get remotely usable images.
Now, on to the telescope mount problems. I did not get around to testing/tweaking the mount the week before this. My DEC axis had a lot of slop when I set up that night. I tightened the four bolts that need to be loosened in order for the drive motor to work. That fixed the slop, but the drive motor wouldn't move the DEC axis. Whoops! I slightly loosened the bolts again and all was well. This time when attempting to autoguide with PHD2 it lasted longer, but gave me a different error. It seems that the kit and PHD2 cannot agree on how to make the fine tune adjustments. When the mount is set to track in RA only, the adjustments it makes are enough to prevent star trails at F10 for a 20s exposure. My guess then, is a communication problem with ASCOM settings or something within PHD2 I need to adjust.
There's another issue I've run into again: electricity. The power supply I have is plenty sufficient enough to power the telescope's drives for hours on end. My laptop, however, drains after about three hours of use. That night I plugged it into the power supply, and in about an hour, it drained that as well. Bummer. That ended the photography for me that night. However, I did bring my binoculars and the sky was brilliantly showcasing stars and deep sky objects to the naked eye.
At this Bortle 3 site we observed the Milky Way with our naked eye, from horizon to horizon. The Lagoon Nebula was visible without averted vision as well. I should mention that Kelby ended up purchasing the same Celestron Skymaster 25x70 binos that I have. With those, we saw the Lagoon and Trifid nebula in the same field of view. When I went back to look at them again, I found the M22 (globular cluster) and M25 (open cluster) slightly to the left of what I was looking for. However, I had no idea where I was in the sky, so I kept on going 'up' and saw two more fuzzy irregular spots in the sky. Kelby and I came to the conclusion that these were M17 (Swan Nebula) and M16 (Eagle Nebula). I also found NGC 6231 (open cluster) in Scorpius just above the trees on top of the mountain where we were. There was another bright object between there and the Lagoon Nebula. It looked like it might have been a nebula with lots of stars. Kelby thought it was NGC 6334 (Cat's Paw Nebula). It was more condensed than the open clusters M6 and M7 in the area. He might be right. (Edit: I now believe it was M6 after all, after seeing it in another photograph.) I'll revisit that again with my telescope for sure. Looking through the binoculars at the Milky Way above us was mind boggling. The sheer amount of stars that became visible was overwhelming and made it easy to get lost in the sky. Kelby and I pondered how much more intense that view will be at a Bortle 2 location. Hopefully we'll find out next month at Cherry Springs State Park!
Regarding the few images I was able to save, they've been added below. There were no calibration frames to speak of, just stacked exposures of ludicrous settings. Vega and M4 were stacked using Deep Sky Stacker and processed in GIMP. I started a 45 day free trial of PixInsight today. I used that to process Rho Ophiuchi. Kelby shared some of his stacked data with me, and with some actual research into what I was doing, I was able to nearly duplicate his results from Photoshop. For a novice, it was quite a shock at how easy that was for me. There is hope after all!June 13, 2021
Last night was supposed to be about 20-30% cloud cover. You be the judge. I sat out there for nearly three hours until the clouds broke enough to polar align my telescope mount. Then it was another hour until the sky became clear enough to aim the telescope at to have another go at this autoguiding. It did not go well at all. The guiding software was over-correcting in DEC. When I looked at the logs, it said my polar alignment was off significantly. This flabbergasted me! I'd been doing that alignment for quite a while now and haven't had much trouble with stars trailing while tracking in RA only. I fiddled around with some settings and nothing worked. The clear section of sky was being invaded by more clouds at this point. I figured I would take some longer exposures of some clear spots to check later if there are star trails. Indeed, there were. When I packed everything up and came inside, I dismantled the motorized upgrade to the mount. It was futile, a lost cause, to try and autoguide this mount. My temper was flaring!
A few hours later I remembered another thing I could do without the motors. Then while out for breakfast with my father, I decided to yet again further investigate this upgrade kit. I discovered something strange, but it was irrelevant to the guiding process. The +/- RA/DEC buttons on the SimpleDreamEQ3 unit do not work properly when in guiding mode. I opened up the ASCOM Utility and I was able to properly move in each direction. It's worth noting that in guiding mode, RA will pause to let the sky catch up instead of reversing. Then I realized that the micro-goto function still worked, and that would still be of use. I begrudgingly reattached the motors to the mount. I then started investigating the polar axis finder that I use to polar align. This came with my mount and I just assumed it was like plug-n-play. Wrong! This accessory also needed to be aligned to the mount, before aligning to the the celestial north pole. Not only that, but I sort of didn't attach it properly. It technically still would work how I had it, after aligning it, but it looks really goofy that way. Tomorrow I will align the polar axis finder with the mount, and wait again for clear skies on my off days for another round of tests.
The night wasn't a total loss though. I captured an amazing video of a shooting star!June 28, 2021
Last night the sky was mostly clear above my small patch of yard. I had to force myself to focus on getting autoguiding working instead of trying to take pictures of things. The polar alignment was more accurate after the adjustments I made to the alignment scope. I also found a handy app for my phone that shows me where exactly Polaris should be around the North Celestial Pole (NCP). This is a lot easier than reading the weird etchings of constellations on the reticle that my scope has. I also tweaked the DEC worm gears on the mount to remove the backlash and also allow the motors to operate the axis. That was a huge help! When I calibrated to begin guiding, it completed the task much faster than before. I also used the in-app suggestions to make settings corrections to allow for more accurate guiding. Once that was all working and stabilized, it was time for a test.
I figured, why not aim at the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) again? It was somewhat high in the sky and I had about an hour and a half before my view of it was obstructed. I settled on taking 60 second exposures at ISO 800. I got 50 of those in, and tried 10 more at ISO 1600. The 10 really didn't change things much. I processed the data with and without them, and the difference was unnoticeable. If I had taken 50 of each, there likely would've been an obvious difference. Now, the guiding wasn't perfect. There was one thing I meant to do but opted out. That was a polar drift alignment, to further check/test the accuracy of my polar alignment. As it turns out, I was closer than I had been, but still far enough off to degrade the guiding. Without any tracking or guiding, I cannot take even a one second exposure without star trails. With the one minute exposures and 'almost close enough' guiding, my stars were a little egg shaped. This also took away from the sharpness of the galaxy structure. Next time I will be sure to do the polar drift alignment. If time and weather permits, I will try two different methods of imaging as well. I will increase the exposure time and keep the ISO at 800 for one set. For another, I will increase the ISO and decrease the exposure time, probably to around 30 seconds. Overall, I'd like to collect the same total amount of time each way and compare results. The image I ended up with wasn't great, but it's the most detailed (and colorful!) image I've obtained so far. Check it out in the image section!
Any minute now, UPS will be delivering some new astronomy gear to me. Also, have you enjoyed watching Jupiter and Saturn escort the moon across the sky lately? I know I have! Until next time...July 6, 2021
The trip to Cherry Springs State Park was canceled due to cloudy skies in the forecast. In the meantime, Saturday and Sunday night were somewhat clear out so I got to play with my new astronomy gear at home. The additions to the family are the SkyGuider Pro mount and (don't laugh) the AstroMaster 80AZS telescope with it's alt-azimuth mount and tripod. I was looking around for a star tracking camera mount that would attach to my camera's tripod and allow me to take wide field sky photos at long exposures. That's when I came across the SkyGuider Pro. I saw this package would do all that and was also capable of supporting a small telescope. I've seen several people, Kelby included, using small refractors for deep sky astrophotography. This was interesting, but I didn't have a small refractor! It turned out that the AstroMaster 80AZS was small enough to fit, was in stock, and came with a sturdy tripod itself. After I convinced myself it was worth the risk, I pulled the trigger and bought them both. The SkyGuider Pro wouldn't mount as-is to the AstroMaster 80AZS tripod. The bolt that came with it was too short and too big. I setup everything on my camera tripod, and with the camera on the mount it worked well. When I set it up with the telescope though, it was slightly exceeding the tripod's capacity. I figured as much, but at least the mount could handle it. A quick trip to Lowe's and less than a dollar later, I had a bolt the right size to mount the SkyGuider Pro to the sturdier AstroMaster 80AZS tripod. Everything seemed in place, I just needed clear skies to test it out again.
Saturday night was mostly clear, so I took out the new rig to play. It's nice being able to carry the tripod, mount, telescope, and camera all in one trip out the door! I had to wait a little bit for some high clouds to get away from Polaris. Once I was aligned, I decided to aim for a nebula, The Witch's Broom nebula to be exact. This was practically straight up. It took a little patience to find it, and I didn't have it framed very well. There are no slow motion controls for DEC or RA on this mount. Everything is done by loosening things up and swiveling the telescope/camera around to where you want to aim it. I was happy to see a faint ribbon of blue in my first exposure, as I was completely unaware if this was even possible to capture without filters. I captured more data on this target than any previous one. There were fast moving low clouds that caused some frames to be discarded. Also, my camera had reached the IMG_9999.CR2 for it's raw data files and created a new folder. I never looked in there when I went to transfer the data, half asleep, after coming inside. I processed what I had anyway and came up with a mediocre result. After about three or four runs through processing, each time starting from scratch, I finally settled on the heavily cropped version you'll find on the Images page.
The next night was a lot clearer, but also it was the 4th of July. I polar aligned ASAP with no problems. Yet when I took my first images, the neighborhood fireworks were causing flashes in the sky that were interfering with my exposures. I was aiming at the globular cluster M3. It was already setting, and by the time the celebrations subsided, it was low on the horizon. I captured enough data to get a reasonable image before it entered the city glow. I think the next addition to the family will be a light pollution filter! After M3 was in the glow zone, I began looking around for other things to image in the sky. In my Bortle 6 patch of grass, I have a lot of obstructions. This limits me to mostly aiming southwest to northwest. The other rest of the sky is mostly blocked by my house, my neighbor's house, and the tree between them. The tree does block the light from the street, giving me somewhat of a shadow to set up in. I couldn't find any deep sky objects to aim at. But hey, Jupiter and Saturn were about to rise above my back porch!
I went and got my planetary camera and laptop. For whatever reason, I could not find either planet in my field of view using the AstroMaster 80AZS and the NexImage 5. This was more of a curiosity anyway. I don't think imaging these planets with an f5 telescope is ideal in any way. It was time to put the little scope inside and bring out the big guy. (I can call it the big guy, because it's the biggest telescope I own!) This time I had the SimpleDreamEQ3 kit on the mount, compared to the last time when I was tracking planets with the slow motion hand controls. It was easy getting the targets into the FOV. The kit automatically tracks in sidereal, not entirely accurate but close enough for this purpose. The planets actually were nearly stationary in the FOV. That was a joy to see! I decided to try using the 2x Barlow lens with the camera since I didn't have to worry about tracking by hand. It zoomed in as expected, and they were still being tracked well enough to not need to slew the telescope every 10 seconds when using a low resolution. There were some significant differences though in how sharp I was able to get the data using the Barlow lens. I had some data of Saturn without it, but not Jupiter. My Saturn image was heads and shoulders better than my previous attempt. While the Jupiter images is a significant improvement as well, it was not as much as the Saturn result. It turns out there is a rule of thumb 5x rule involved. You take your focal ration (f10 in my case) and divide by 5. Your planetary imaging device's pixel size should be close to that. The NexImage5 has a pixel size of 2.2µm, which multiplied by five brings me very close to my f10. Interestingly, my DSLR with my 2x Barlow might work in the big scope. I might have a crack at that in the morning.
There are perhaps better settings and configurations in iCap that I can use to get better data. That is something I am going to look into. Apparently, I had done this before and found someone else's saved configurations for Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, already saved in a documents folder. I suppose it's time to refresh my memory and get ready for another go at these two planets! Also, there is quite a bit of field curvature in the AstroMaster 80AZS. I expected there to be some, as I've read that many 'fast' telescopes have this issue. This is a low end telescope for beginners or just a quick grab-n-go for travel. I wasn't quite sure how capable it would be for imaging, or if it even would work at all! Right now I can deal with it by keeping my objects in the center and cropping it down as much as reasonable. I will say that I've been checking out field flatteners for this f5 telescope though... I remember being quite surprised that the Omni XLT 102 had no curvature in my images. This might actually be because of how the image circle is hitting the sensor on the DSLR. Right now I'm using a 1.25" adapter to connect it to the telescope. I think some of that adapter is actually blocking light to the sensor. It's currently not bothering me, but eventually I might try a 2" adapter and see what that does. For now, it's just another area to crop out.
This all means there are more images on the Image page for you to view! One of them is just a reprocessed result of already acquired data.