Astronomy has always been a wondering fascination of mine, ever since I was a kid laying in the back yard looking up at all the stars during those warm summer nights in Wyoming. Growing up through the space race era seemed to hold all kids fantasies of space and new frontiers. But it wasn't until about five years ago that the astronomy bug really hit me, that was when a fellow co-worker ask if there was anyone here that would be interested in buying a telescope. I purchased the scope from him and set out to learn the night sky.
From my first view through the eyepiece I was hooked! I just couldn't seem to learn or see enough. Book after book I read, maps and charts were collected. The more I learned the more I wanted to know. The more I knew the more I wanted to see, so the quest for telescopes started. From my first 70mm refractor to 10" Schmidt/Cass the list went on. Beings that I live in a condo fifteen feet from a sodium vapor light viewing session require for me to be mobile. Telescope size and weight has always been an issue for me, so when I finally decided to get a computer scope the 8" aperture seemed to be the best choice.
After purchasing my 8" LX200 I thought that I might like to start to do some photography with it. You know capture some of those incredible images that all the great astro magazines have in them. What is it that inspires us to open up that giant void in space that we dump money into??? The telescope manufactures insure us that all we need to have to start taking photographs is a simple t-ring, t adapter and a SLR camera. Yeah RIGHT! Then you get to the fine print.... Print so fine and so long that people write books about it! What initially seemed like an easy thing to do, has now grown into monster that's ever growing diet consists of things like Illuminated Reticle Eyepieces, Off Axis Guiders, Guide Scopes, CCD Autoguiders, Filters and let not forget to mention CCD Imaging cameras or film!
Not only does this monster require an expensive diet, he tortures us, making us submit to spending long hours on set up and tear down routines, lengthy exposures times, and in_climate weather conditions. He teases us, lets us think that we've captured a piece of the sky only to have his partner the Photo Lab ruin our film, cut our negatives, and lose our prints and slides.
You would think that we'd give up with so many factors against us, what is it that makes us pursue this obsession??? Well, every so often something wonderful happens. The weather's calm. The telescopes alignment and tracking is perfect. Exposure time is just right. And you elude the Kid with the car that only has high beams looking for a place to park. What you end up with is things such as this, one little photo that has captured the light and keeps us longing for the next exposure.
As you pursue the hobby of astrophotography and perfect ones techniques you find that your photos can only be as good as ones equipment. I started into astrophotography after acquiring a 8" LX200. Which served me well until I felt that the scope had taken me as far as I could go with results that were typical of a SCT optical system without a lock-able mirror. I decided that I wanted to take my photography to the next level. So I started researching to find the equipment that would fit my needs.
I decided to go to a refractor apochromatic optical system, and beings that I need it to be portable I decided to go with a scope no larger than 4" aperture. I purchased a TeleVue 102 to start with and found it to be a very good scope for visual work and with the .8X reducer it was also a good imaging platform as well.... But as you know, amateure astronomers are hardly ever satisfied... I have since been through a number of scopes until I have now (for the time being) settled into a Takahashi FS78 NSV and a Takahashi FS60 NSV,
Using a Borg Mini 50 for a guidescope.
Times they are a changin'...
CCD imaging had been in the back of my mind for awhile, I have a couple of close friends that have been into CCD imaging since I've known them, and it was their influences the caused my research in that direction. What really spurred it on was when my friend Jim Edlin called to tell me that he'd just gotten his new ST-10 camera and that he would like to try imaging through my Tele Vue 102. So I packed up my gear and headed down to Sheridan Wyoming where he was living at the time.
This was my first real experience with CCD imaging and process that are involved And let me tell you, "I think Greek might be easier to understand!" The words that were flying out of Jim's mouth, were unlike I've heard before. Things like, Binning 3X3, Focus Frame, Bias Frame, Dark Frame, Light Frame, Flat Field Frame. On and On!!! It's a good thing we got set up before dark. And to my surprise he started taking images as soon as we did get set up! What was going on I thought. I didn't realize there was so much to CCD imaging, and from what was being laid out before me I was starting to doubt the fact that I would ever be interested in pursuing it much further than tonight's effort. But then as darkness began to fall and we zeroed in on M31 I started to realize that this CCD imaging thing could be COOL! The first thing that was apparent was that there was no guide scope, or off axis guider needed, because this ST-10 would guide itself! Oh yeah This could be real cool! With my film camera set up, I had not only my main scope but a guide scope and ST-4 CCD autoguider to set up as well. With this CCD camera the only thing on my GM-8 was that and my TV 102. Talk about convenience! We imaged well into the night till the dew point got so bad that we had to shut down.
This M31 image is the result of a nights worth of imaging.
Once I decided to go the CCD route I started with a Starlight-Xpress MX516 with the USB interface. I ended up making a trade deal on it and so thus started my trek down CCD road of imaging. Once I got the camera I soon realized that my old laptop was going to be a major draw back. It was the old LCD monitor type and did not have a USB port. I tried it out anyway using the parallel interface, and found it was slow to download images and with the LCD monitor made it very hard to focus. I needed to get a newer laptop So I started to think about what I could sell to raise enough cash to be able to purchase a new computer.
My ST-4 came to mind, but I still needed to be able to autoguide if I wanted to do imaging over a 60 second exposure, or so I thought. Come to find out the MX series cameras can Self-Guide if you have the Star2000 interface. I ordered Star2000 from AVA and put my ST-4 on the chopping block. I contacted my astro buddy's to tell them that I was going to sell my ST-4 and as it turned out my friend Gary Moore had an offer for me too good to be true. He had a laptop that he would trade me for my ST-4. YeeHaw! I am now set, new laptop, USB interface for lightning image downloads, and Star2000 to self-guide the system and am ready to start imaging.
My first night out, I set up on my front porch because there are a lot of preliminary issues to deal with and it is easier to be able to do them at the house than from the field. (If you are new to CCD imaging I highly recommend you start this way as well. Practice at home and getting a good routine down before you go out in the field will be time well spent.) Following the instructions from the manuals note to note I start my first CCD experience. Focusing was the first issue to deal with, but in a while I finally got it and was then able to parfocal an eyepiece to help future focusing. (I am using a Meade 644 flip mirror which I have adapted to use with a 2" focuser, it really helps to find objects and to obtain rough focus.) With focus attained I now try to self-guide an image, but each time I tried I'd get software errors and communication problems. I finally gave up trying to self-guide and did some un-guided images of M13, and M92. I could not believe the images I got from just a short 15 second exposure and even though I didn't get Star2000 to work that first night out I was extremely pleased with my first image results.
I have learned so much over the years not only from Starlight-Xpress but from Ron Wodaski's book "The New CCD Astronomy" it is a must read for anyone thinking about getting into CCD imaging. You could consider it the CCD Bible. The MX516 is a great little camera and is a great way to cut your teeth into the CCD thing. But as one grows there comes a time for change.....
My current CCD camera is a Starlight-Xpress SXVM7C with the SXV Autoguider which I purchsed in 2005. I have had some trying times with it but all is well and it longs for clear nights.... It guides perfectly and has taken my imaging to the next level....
As for my latest adventure... I have just purchased a Canon DSLR 350D XT Hutech Modified Type 1. DSLR Astrophotography is really starting to come to light, and I am eger to give it a go.....
My Equipment List....
DSCH with Sky Commander XP4
Polar alignment scope
Takahashi FS78 NSV
Takahashi FS60 NSV
Borg Mini 50
Cameras , adapters and such...
Canon 350D XT Hutech Modified Type 1
Camera angle adjuster
Schuler Ha 9nm
Computer and Software
HP Pavilion Laptop
Corel PhotoPaint 9
Recommended Sights and Publications