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Birthday Clear Skies

  • Nik 

Monday was my birthday and as a present the skies cleared.

Only drawback was that we were due to go round to the daughter’s house for tea and cake. (She lives alone and we’re in a support bubble with her so this is OK under COVID-19 regulations). Luckily I have a VPN and I talk to my observatory computer using Remote Desktop so as long as I can get away with taking a laptop with me I’m sorted.

Monday the moon was in Gemini and near full. The seeing wasn’t predicted to be great but there was little cloud cover forecast.

My setup was more or less working with the exception of the dew heater and focuser. Since these use the same board I suspect it’s a power issue but it was too late to fix them.

I decided to risk it without dew heaters and given the temperature I’m amazed I didn’t get ice forming on the lenses.

I was using my Explore Scientific ED80APO and my 183C Hypercam with PHD2 guiding.

I managed to capture about 2 1/2 hours of light on M42. A combination of 5 minute, 2 minute and 1 minute subs. I’m quite pleased with the result.

ES ED80APO, HEQ5 - Guided. 10x300s, 28x120s, 18x60s. Total exp. 2hr6mins
ES ED80APO, HEQ5 - Guided. 10x300s, 28x120s, 18x60s. Total exp. 2hr6mins

Astroshed Update

  • Nik 

So after much heaving and very precise setting up with the new tube extension the scope fits and clears the sides. It’s definitely touch and go though, I’m having to park the scope in a weird position and remove the counterweights before I put the roof on.

Basically could defo have done with a 6×6 shed. Shame I didn’t have room.

I’ve also cut the top strut and am now using this to close the gap between the two roof panels. The shed may have survived storm Christopher but the roofing felt didn’t.

Might even be a bit of clear sky tonight so fingers crossed for a test run.

January Blues

  • Nik 

So January, what can you say? Orion in the sky, fabulous targets to image, nice long nights.

On the other hand here in Cambridge, wet cloudy skies all month, locked inside (which I fully support by the way), no chance of pointing my scopes at the sky. 🙁

Fortunately this doesn’t mean I’ve got nothing to do.

Computer upgrade

Firstly, I’ve replaced my ageing, slow observatory computer with something a bit more modern (an Intel NUC). Fairly cheap and the RAM and SSD from the old one (A 4 year old dual core GigaByte Brix) swapped right over which keep the cost down a bit.

I managed to try this out just at the end of December and it seemed to work well.

NGC 7635
NGC 7635 - Skywatcher 200PDS + Hypercam 183C Pro + CLS. 31 x 300s exp. Total exp 1h5m

New Observatory Shed

Top of my wish-list from November was a new shed to house my kit.

I decided I didn’t have room in my garden for a 6×6 shed so after some careful calculation I decided to buy a 6×4 because my rig should fit.

My careful reasoning when thus:

  • Base of tripod forms an equilateral  triangle 47″ on a side.
  • That gives an inradius of about 20″ (which is the largest circle that can be contained in the triangle). So if the sweep of the tube rotating on the mount sits within the inradius then all should be good.
  • My biggest scope is under 40″ in length and balances roughly in the middle so should fit within the inradius
  • The smallest dimension of the shed is 48″ so that should leave 4 inch either side of the inradius.

So given the above reasoning I should be able to get away with a 6×4 shed.

I went for a Keter Darwin 6×4 because it was fairly economical as sheds go and plastic. Looking through the manual online it looked like it should be fairly easy to modify the roof to lift off and it was.

Basically I built the shed according to the instructions until I came to assembling the roof. The roof consists of two plastic panels and a top strut which runs along the top and the provides an overhand to the panels to make them water tight.

Rather than screw the panels to the shed I’ve fixed the panels to the shed using 8 hasp locks and I’ve replaced the top strut with a flap of roof felt on one of the panels which folds over the gap at the top. (I may try and reuse the strut at some point but this will do for now).

So far so good, from this point on the fun begins. Turns out that my assumptions about the HEQ5 tripod weren’t correct.

The mount doesn’t centre over the centre of the triangle but is more towards the back two legs (I guess this is so the back two legs of the tripod brace the load). So the sweep of the telescope tube moves backwards towards one wall by more that the 4″ margin I have.

The upshot of this is that the tube hits the walls a various angles.

Luckily there is a solution to this, raise the mount up and move the tripod towards the other wall.

So I’ve brought a load of cocreate blocks and used them to make a base for the tripod.

This raises the mount up high enough so that it sits in the roof (just) and doesn’t hit the walls.

I’ve just ordered an extension tube for the tripod so it’ll be easier to centre the tripod in the shed, and as an added bonus I won’t have to worry about the end of the tube hitting the tripod legs 🙂

Christmas Gaps in the Clouds

  • Nik 

Last night I did manage to see Jupiter and Saturn shining in the sky (briefly) from amongst the trees but there was a large bank of cloud approaching from the west so I didn’t bother driving to my favourite roadside venue to take a snap (If I’d managed to get out I would have tried out my new Barlow). Tonight, as predicted, does look abysmally cloudy so no chance.

On the plus side last night did clear a bit later on so I got a view hours of DSO in trying out my new CLS filter.

M45
M45 - Skywatcher 200PDS + Hypercam 183C Pro + CLS. 13 x 5min + 1 x 10min. Total Exp 1hr 15min

First up was M45. 5 minute exposures through my 8″ refractor with a few 10 minute exposures at the end.

Note: This is without flats but I’m still reasonably pleased with the results.

Then a quick go at the Flame Nebula (a bit of a Christmas tradition with me). Again 8″ refractor with CLS filter. Only 35 mins of 5 min exposures.

Note: I think I’ve over cooked the red balance to bring out the surrounding brown cloud. I may have another go at processing this.

NGC2024
NGC2024 - Skywatcher 200PDS + Hypercam 183C Pro + CLS. 7 x 5min. Total Exp: 35 min.

Comparing this to the test shot a took a month or so ago when I was testing my belt mod on my mount, I think, shows what a big difference the CLS filter is making.

Before
NGC2024
After

Looking at the forecast for the rest of the week I may have taken my last pictures for 2020 but we’ll see what Christmas Eve brings.

Jupiter and Saturn

  • Nik 

Possibly the biggest event of my life is happening on 21st December 2020. Yes I’m talking about the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn but living in the UK the conditions for viewing it are not good, to say the least.

It’s been all  over the news outlets for about the last month. Sadly they fail to give much detail other than the is a once in lifetime opportunity. I guess they are mostly geared up to cater for people looking at it with the naked eye but it does wind me up slightly (rant over now).

Firstly, the position in the sky. I’m at latitude 52 degrees north which means that the whole thing isn’t getting much above 10 degrees above the horizon just after sunset. This makes observing from my garden, and in fact the whole of my street impossible (there is a house and trees in the way).

Secondly, but probably more importantly hasn’t anyone looked at the weather forecast???

So I decided to get out early on Tuesday 15th since this seemed to be about the only semi-reasonable break in the clouds. Jupiter and Saturn by then were within 1/2 degree of each over which was just close enough to cover with the FOV of my 80mm refractor.

So, our criteria for success (pretty low ones I’ll admit) were are follows:
  1. See Jupiter and Saturn in the sky with the naked eye between the clouds
  2. Get a selfie of Jupiter and Saturn with a smart phone
  3. Get my rig setup and get a reasonable image (I’m not expecting miracles here, just something recognizable)
You can just see Jupiter in the background over the top of my scope.

So, in the back of my car goes my Skywatcher EQ3-2 Pro and my Explore Scientific ED80APO. I used my GPCAM3 with this since it was already setup and seems to be a good match for the telescope.

With a boot full of junk off me and my son go about 2 minutes out of the village to a local lay-by with a good westerly view.

I figured that I wouldn’t really care about light pollution from car headlights since Jupiter and Saturn are so bright.

It was only just dusk when I setup. Jupiter and Saturn could just be seen but no stars were visible (So, criteria #1 achieved 🙂 ). So selfie taken. The evening can be counted as a success (I said our criteria for success were pretty low).

So our first problem was that there were no stars. I had to do a very rough polar alignment of the mount with a compass and hope it was close enough. No polar alignment with SharpCap which I really missed 🙁

I figured that as long as it was close-ish it wouldn’t matter since the exposure times would be so short. (Luckily I was right).

Second problem was pointing the scope. I’ve been a bit spoilt over the years by the fabulous Astrophotography Tool (APT) and it’s Point Craft option.

  • Issue 1: stars weren’t out
  • Issue 2: I’d forgotten to install EQMOD on my laptop to drive the mount. (Thank the great flying spaghetti monster I remembered to pack the hand-controller to my mount).

Oh well, so I had to do it the old fashion way. My son was useful at this point by yelling excitedly when Jupiter flashed across the screen.

Managed to just get them within my FOV with a bit of tinkering. Saturn was just about recognizable but a lot fainter than Jupiter.

So given the exposure time I needed to grab Saturn and the Jovian satellites this completely overexposed Jupiter but the purpose of the evening wasn’t to get a lot of detail but to actually get a a shot at all.

I did take an avi but I’ve had no luck in aligning and staking it so I’ve pulled out this one frame (from fairly early on in the film because the cloud started to close in) and fiddled quite drastically with it.

I processed Saturn, Jupiter and the Jovian satellites separately and then merged the lot together.

Not the greatest picture of all time but we were just happy that we got anything at all (As you can see).

Dodging Clouds

  • Nik 

This week I managed to get my scope out for a few hours during a break in the clouds. Only advantage of working from home (until July 2021 according to my company’s latest communication :-s ) is that I can setup my scope in daylight during a quick coffee break and spend 1/2 hour first thing in the morning putting it away after doing the school run.

M33 - 2020/11/10
M33

My main target for the night was M33. This was taken in full dark before the moon was up and the seeing wasn’t to bad. There was a bit of light cloud which split my on sky time into two two hour chunks. On the whole I’m reasonably pleased although it could benefit from a CLS filter and I gave up getting the background perfect.

Since I thought I’d got enough light on M33 in the first half of my run I decided to do a ‘bonus’ object and went back to the Crab Nebula again. I had even more trouble processing this and getting the background right but I like this and it’s a lot better than last months attempt (although it was taken with my 200mm refractor and Hypercam so it should be)

M1 - 2020/11/10
M1

My shopping list

So, given the above, and that my Christmas bonus is coming around I’m making up a shopping list. I’ve been thinking about this for a few months now and have paired it down quite a bit. Firstly, although I’d love one, I’m not going to spend £5000 on a Polaris dome and drive system however groovy that would be. Secondly, I was seriously considering upgrading my mount from an HEQ5 to an EQ6-R but now I’ve got the belt mod going I’m leaving that for the time being and seeing how I get on with the new and improved HEQ5. So my wife should be happy, I’ve saved myself approx £6500 (with astronomy logic!).

So now on to the wish list of stuff I’m seriously looking at getting at the end of this month:

Item 1 – A new observatory shed.

Two years ago I built myself a little 1.6m x 1.6m observatory shed to put my EQ3-2 (later the HEQ5) and my ED80APO in. It worked well enough with a hinged roof but when I got my 200PDS it was to small so now I’m using it to story stuff in and have to carry my scope out and set it up of a night.

I’m thinking of replacing it with a modified 6ftx6ft shed with a hinged roof.

Price ~ £300

Item 2 – A new CLS filter

Bit of a no brainer really. I have a 1.25″ one for the GPCAM3 and ED80APO but I desperately need one for my 2″ focuser on my refactor.

I’m thinking of the Astronomik CLS CCD Filter

Price £179

Item 3 – A set of narrow band filters

OK, so I’m probably going to slim this down to just a Astronomik H-alpha 12nm Narrowband CCD Filter

Price £266

Whole set – price £802

Item 4 – Baader VIP Modular 2x Barlow Lens (1.25″ and 2″)

Basically I’d like to play about with getting a decent shot of Mars so a bit of extra magnification would be useful.

Price – £162

Item 5 – 0.5x focal reducer

Again, I have one of these for my 1.25″ setup but need one for my 2″ setup. Something like the Antares 0.5x Focal Reducer 2″ looks just the ticket.

Price – £57.99

Giving a grand total of ~ £965. Good job I saved the £6500 by not buying all that extra stuff 😉

HEQ5 Now Working Again!

  • Nik 
I sometimes question the wisdom of taking up a hobby that requires clear skies whilst living in the UK (one of the lowest points in the UK to boot!). Most of September and October have passed with no opportunity to point a tube shaped device at the sky. The clear nights that we have had the seeing has been pretty abismal.

The best shot I managed to get last month was of M1 on a really dodgy night seeing wise using my ES ED80APO and EQ3-2 Pro (which worked remarkably well after sitting in the astroshed for nearly a year). This was made up of 44 x 120s exposures using my GPCAM3.

But enough moaning about the weather!

The HEQ5 with belt mod is now running smoothly. The hardest part of fixing it turned out to be hauling it up to my upstairs office so I had somewhere quiet and dry to fix it and finding a few days where the clouds have cleared so I could point it at the sky to test it.

After an initial try of tweaking the backlash on the RA axis using astro baby’s guide the clicking still remained.

I briefly toyed with the idea that there might be a slight lump on the RA belt, which was reported in one thread, but this turned out not to be the case (just flip the belt over and see if the click happens in the opposite direction of travel).

So I reread the instructions carefully and did the job properly. Clicking disappeared. Movement appeared to be smooth.

My pipe-dream of making a laser spot on the wall to do a star cross test in PHD2 seemed like to much trouble and clear skies were forecast for that night so I just took the plunge and set it up outside and started taking test shots.

First Night of Test Runs

So I started off taking test shots on the first of two nights. The first night I did unguided shots and the second I setup my guide scope. All pictures were taken with my 200PDS and Hypercam. I should point out that although the sky was clear the seeing was bad and the moon was near full. Oh well. The first shot I took was a 60s shot of Almaak. All good so far 🙂

I then took a series of shots of Betelgeuse.

Obviously 300s unguided is to much but 120s looks OK which is about what I’d expect from an HEQ5 and what I could get before I started the belt mod.

Of course the acid test is if I can actually put together a stacked image.

So unguide 60s exp produced this. 1hr 30m of 6os exposures once processed.

So a sucessful first night 🙂

Second Night of Test Runs

The purpose of the second night of testing was to get my guide scope working with the new setup. Again I used my 200PDS and added my StarWave 50mm guide scope and a mono GPCAM AR130.

So I ran the calibration on PHD2 and all seemed to go well.

Next up some single shots of stars. Starting at 180s this time and going up to 600s. Again all seems fine 🙂

So again the acid test, can I take a stack of exposures. Seems to be yes.

12 x 5m exposures

1 x 10m exposures

Wetness and COVID-19

  • Nik 

So, clouds and rain have prevalied for the last few weeks and look like they will for at least the next week. HoHum.

So I should have a to do list:

  • Sort out HEQ5 mount
  • Finish processing stuff I have taken but haven’t gotten round to processing yet (This is now a vanisingly small set of data now)
  • Wait for COVID-19 test result to come back (I feel fine but felt iffy the end of last week so better safe than sorry.)

As for the HEQ5 I have a feeling that it’s the worm gears but I’d like some way to test them without using up valuable sky time. I may try and setup a fake star with a laser so I can use PhD’s star cross test (well it worked in a privious life with AO! What could go wrong 😉 )

M31 and Molluscs

  • Nik 

I’ve been playing with mosaics recently. Not wanting to hard a target and it being the right time of year for it I’ve been concentrating on the Andromeda Galaxy. Although I’ve been mostly using my 8″ and HyperCam I thought I’d also have a quick go with my ES ED80 and my GPCAM3.

The night before last should (and indeed did) have given me a moonless clear sky and enough time to do a 4 pane mosaic but became an exercise in fixing things.

I’d been running my newly belt modded HEQ5 with my 8″ for the previous week and getting nice steady 5 minute exposures (give of take the odd frame) so loading it up with my 80mm should have been simple right? Wrong. I started off getting a terrible periodic oscillation in the RA.

Bit of digging about on the internet and some prodding later I’m running PhD2 to get a PEC profile in the vague hope that I can cancel it out. Nope that doesn’t work but the graph does show me how bad the osc is.

So at 11pm, I’m standing outside with a torch in my mouth and a set of allen keys trying to adjust the motor plate angle and re-tension the drive belt. Nope, still not playing ball. I think what’s happening is that there is a load of play in the RA worm gears which the general crappiness of the replaced gears was kind of masking + was being kept in check by the weight of my 8″.

Anyway, wasn’t going to get solved that night so we break out the emergency backup mount. This is my ageing EQ3-2 which to it’s credit gave me remarkably few problems once I’d finished aligning it. So back inside (after trapping my finger in the HEQ5 mount whilst putting it away just to add insult to injury).

Focus, check. Alignment, check. Modify APT sequence to fit into remaining time, check. And off we go. Everything now settles down and runs flawlessly until at 1-30 I decide its time for bed.

So, what time do you suppose my camera decided to start playing silly buggers with me? Yup, you guessed it 1-31.

Waking up to find this out and also that a snail had climbed up my mount and into the dewshield of the scope and left slime trails all over my lens really rounded the experience off nicely. So I have two sets of flats from that night, one snailed and the other de-snailed (cleaned).

At least the two panes that I did manage to take make sense as a picture. I shall have to wait for a nother clear moonless night to finish off the original program.

M31/M110

I really have been tardy lately (well for the last 18 months)

  • Nik 

I really should post here more often. Oh well, here’s an update for the last 18 months.

Firstly Equipment

The ES ED80mm is really superb and I’ve been having fun with that but my dream of only buying reasonably priced equipment is a distant memory.

First off I  bought a new mount, a Skywatcher HEQ5 which has made things easier. A belt drive kit is currently on the way so I can upgrade the drive train.

Then I brought a new camera, an AltairAstro Hypercam 183c PRO.

And finally I’ve also splurged on a Skywatcher 200PDS as a bit of a light bucket.

Secondly Image Processing

Most of last year I was using Siril and GIMP to do most of my processing.

Again, I’ve taken the plunge and brought a copy of PixInsight which seems to be working out OK.

Below is a picture of the bubble nebular that I took. Compare this to the one a couple of posts/1 1/2 years ago.

M27

M27 – Bubble Nebula

  • Skywatcher 200PDS
  • Hypercam 183c PRO
  • 78 x 60s exposures
  • 216 x 30s exposures

2hr 6min Total Exposure