Archive for the 'Observation Tools' Category

Sketching

I have been making small sketches of different objects in my observation log for a while. Most of these are more just to reference the position of moons or a bright star in a cluster but some of them have actually turned out to be a pretty good representation of what I see through eyepiece. I am going to start practicing this a bit more and hopefully take it to the next level.

I have created a page to add to my log book with a circle to represent the eyepiece. The circle has a light grid in it to help me with spacing and such. There is space to record all the necessary information (Object, location, date, time, equipment, seeing, transparency, notes, etc).

Download the blank sketch document here: Object_Sketch.doc

I found several references around the Internet for different sketch circles, I did not find any that included a grid layout. I think the grid will be useful especially for a beginner (such as myself) specifically when trying to accurately represent the size, location in the FOV, and space between objects.

Here is a preview of what the blank sheet looks like:

Notes on Determining Transparency, Seeing, and Limiting Magnitude

I found this scale for transparency and seeing on Deep Sky Observing conditions page. I have not been recording the transparency, seeing, or limiting magnitude with my observation logs, but it is something that I should be doing.

The scales below for transparency and seeing are the ones I will be using for my logs. I am posting the scale here just to make it easy for me to reference, I am also going to include a print out of the scales in each of my log books.

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Seeing (atmospheric stability) and transparency (atmospheric clarity or clearness)
are rated subjectively on 1-10 scales that are based on the guidelines provided by the American Association of Amateur Astronomers.

Seeing is primarily influenced by atmospheric turbulence. The following scale
is used to rate conditions:

1 :: Chaotic: lowest power stellar images unsteady
2-3 :: Severely disturbed: low power planetary/nebulae images unsteady
4-5 :: Poor: medium powers unsteady
6-7 :: Good: only high powers unsteady
8-9 :: Excellent: only highest powers soft
10 :: Superb: all powers steady

Transparency is influenced by cloud cover, relative humidity, and light conditions
which illuminate airborne particulates, including light pollution, moonglow, and
residual sunlight. The following scale is used to rate conditions:

1 :: Mostly Cloudy
2-3 :: Hazy; 1 or 2 Little Dipper stars visible
4 :: 3-4 Little Dipper stars; Milky Way not visible
5 :: 4 Little Dipper stars; Bright parts of Milky Way visible (Scutum starcloud)
6 :: 5 Little Dipper stars; Milky Way visible with averted vision
7 :: 6 Little Dipper stars; Milky Way visible
8-9 :: Excellent: 7 Little Dipper stars; M-31 visible
10 :: Superb: M-33 and/or M-81 visible

Transparency and Seeing page for log book:
Log Book – Seeing and Transparency Scale :: LogBook-SeeingandTransparencyScale.doc

————-

Here is a nice transparency chart of Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper) from the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA). Could be useful in helping to determine visual (naked eye) limiting magnitude.

Ursa Minor Transparency Chart

Saturn – First light (for me) of the C6 and 9mm Nagler

I have had my Side-by-Side Celestron 6″ and Astro-Tech 66m set up a couple of times over the last week or so hoping that the skies would clear. Finally last night – cooler temperatures and fairly low humidity – except for a few passing clouds it was nearly perfect visual observing.

I spent sometime using the moon as a point of reference to get the C6, the AT66, and the finder scope on the C6 all pointing in the same direction. The C6 was very much out of collimation and I used the collimation instructions that were included with Bob’s Knobs that I installed on the scope to correct this. Collimation was tedious and it took a few tries to get a feel for which knob(s) needed to be adjusted to move the diffraction rings in the correct direction but after I got the hang of it I was able to get the scope collimated – first with the 25mm Plossl and then with 9mm Nagler. I had never tried/worried about collimation, it took a bit of patience and several tries before I got it right, this process should be much easier in the future. I can see a difference between collimated and uncollimated when bringing an object into focus, but once in focus I did not really notice a difference between the two, this is really much more critical for astrophotography than for visual observing. I can also see where this process would be extremely hard using the secondary screws instead of the Bob’s Knobs.

Since it was a school(work) night and I knew that I did not want to be was not going to be out very late I did not go through the usual precise polar and GOTO alignment process. I just did a quick solar system alignment and had the GOTO point the scopes at Saturn. Used the 25mm Plossl to get the ringed planet centered and then replaced the Plossl with 9mm Nagler – AMAZING!!! The 9mm Nagler gave me nice clear view at about 167x magnification with a 0.49 FOV with this little 6″ SCT. I could clearly see the shadow of the rings across the planet’s surface and I counted 4 visible moons. One moon was visible just over the planets rings. I was really amazed at the clarity and wide field of view. Compared to the view through my 8″ using a 15 mm Plossl (135x with a FOV of 0.37 degrees) the view through the 9mm Nagler was just incredible.

I was only out for about an hour before the bugs got bad (should not have been out there barefoot and wearing shorts) but that was OK since I have to be up early for work. If it had not been for the bugs I probably would have stayed out all night enjoying the views of Saturn (and others). Tonight it is Friday, no work tomorrow, and I am looking forward to getting Saturn (and hopefully Jupiter later in the night and then possibly another try at Comet McNaught) back in the scope. If the skies are clear I pretty sure I will be out most of the night.

I am glad I picked up this little C6 and I think I am really going to enjoy the side by side setup – especially after I get a chance to do some imaging.

C6-SGT (XLT) and AT66ED Side by Side Setup

For the past few months I have been getting things together for a side by side imaging set up. The Celestron 8″ SCT with the AT66 piggybacked works pretty decent but it is really pushing the weight limit of the CG5 mount. I picked up a new to me Celestron C6-SGT (XLT) OTA a few weeks ago to set up a side by side rig that is hopefully a bit lighter and better suited for imaging/guiding.

AT66ED and Celestron C6 SCT Mounted Side by Side

The Celestron 6″ SCT is considerably lighter and the mount seems to handle the weight of it along with the AT66 better. I am using the Dual Scope Mounting plate and dovetail that I picked up from ScopeStuff.com. The ScopeStuff.com accessories are great quality and very affordable. If you are looking for rings, dovetails, or other mounting accessories be sure to check them out at http://www.scopestuff.com/. I have a couple other things on my wish list that I will be picking up from there.

Celestron C6 SCT and AT66ED on CG5 Mount with ScopeStuff.com Mounting Plate

Had everything setup this past weekend hoping to get a look at Comet McNaught but the skies never cleared. Ended up having to take everything down on Saturday night because of the threat of some severe thunderstorms. Even though I have a TeleGizmos 365 cover, I am not going to leave it out in that kind of weather if I can help it. I am hoping to maybe get another opportunity to get a look at Comet McNaught later this week.

I also have a couple of new TeleVue eyepieces I am looking forward to giving a try. Can’t wait for clear skies…

Cub Scout Camping, ISS Flyovers, and a new OTA

This past weekend my son had a cub scout camping trip at Chippokes state park. I took my AT66 and my small equatorial mount along with us. We were able to watch the ISS flyover on Friday and Saturday night. Friday night was pretty neat since the fly over was at just after 8:00 AM, well before dark, and we were still able to see the bright reflection of the station as it crossed almost directly overhead.

The boys were able to view Saturn and Mars on Friday night. After a long day of camping stuff I did not set the scope up on Saturday night – we were all worn out and in the tents sleeping by just after 9. I’ll post some pictures from the camp out on my Facebook page later this week.

One thing I learned was that I rely to much on the GOTO scope, I need some more practice star hopping to locate objects. Planets are pretty easy, but it was taking me too long to locate any other objects (clusters and such) that the boys lost interest. I am going to need a bit of practice locating objects without the GOTO.

The mail man left me a present on Saturday. My C6 SCT OTA that I had bought from a member of Astromart Classifieds.

I’ll have some pictures of my set up with C6 and the AT66 in a few days.

Guiding Issues – 50mm Guide Scope Part II

Saturday night was way to windy even for observing, but Sunday was nice, cool, and clear. Since it was a school night I just wanted to give my new DIY 50mm guide scope a try.

Did a rough polar alignment, then the two star alignment, then the mount polar alignment with the hand controller, and then I redid the two star alignment. I assume I had a pretty decent polar alignment with no drift after 5 minutes or so.

I inserted the Starshoot guide camera into the 50mm scope and cabled it up to the laptop and the auto guide port on the CG5 mount. Started up PHD, connected PHD to the camera and started taking 1 second exposures. Had to adjust the gain and brightness but I was able to focus perfect and find several good stars.

The problem I had was with the PHD calibration. I tried several different settings for RA aggressiveness in PHD and made multiple changes to the Autoguide settings on the hand controller. I am not sure what I (or what may) be wrong but I could not get it to calibrate. I even tried to guide with Maxim DL Essentials and again could not get it to calibrate. Both programs gave me an error that the star did not move enough. I spent several hours (way too many for a school night) fiddling with the settings, but I just could not get a good calibration.

This is not the first time I have had issues with calibration. I have been able to get guiding to work in the past, but I am not able to get the guiding to calibrate consistently.

To me it seems that the camera may not be talking to the guide port on the mount ???? but I am not sure why. It is suppose to be clear again tonight so I will probably have another go at it. If anyone out there has any suggestions or ideas on what may be happening or what I am doing wrong, I could use the help.

If I am not able to get it to guide through the port on the mount I am going to give it a try through the hand controller using the ASCOM driver and the serial port.

Update: Found this information on Calibration Issues in the PHD FAQ. Going to try the Ctrl-T test, looks like I can do that in the daylight :) to make sure the software is talking through the USB port, to the camera, to the mount, then to the motors. There are is also a setup and settings section for my mount.

DIY 50mm Guide Scope Part 1

While surfing around checking out astrophotography sites I happened across a great article on building a guide scope from a inexpensive finder scope and decided I would give it a try. I picked up an inexpensive 10x50mm finder scope from an eBay store – Telescope Warehouse – for just over $50 delivered and I picked up another used Celestron 9×50 from Astromart Classifieds. Why two? Cause I know me and I figured I would screw one of them up (surprisingly I didn’t).

Anyway the instructions found here are pretty straight forward and I spent about $10 at Lowe’s for the PVC spacer, set screws, and tap kit. I ended up using 8-32 set screws and thumbscrew since Lowe’s did not have any 6-32s – this worked out just fine.

Here are some pics of the finished product.

Inexpensive 10x50mm Finderscope

The PVC Spacer secured in the finderscope tube.

With the Starshooter Autoguide camera attached.

I powered up the laptop, connected the camera, and I was able to get good focus on a tree off in the distance. So I am pretty confident that I am going to be able to obtain quick focus when I use it as a guide scope. I am able to loosen the thumbscrew and move the camera in and out to help if I am not able to get focus by adjusting the front lens.

So for just over $60 (not counting the quick release bracket) I have a nice (and light) guide scope.

The reason this I titled this post Part 1 is that I have not yet mounted the scope to my C8 or AT66, this is because I am not able to get the dovetail and mount to match up right with either scope. I have ordered a Celestron quick release finder scope bracket and should have it any day. Once I get it mounted and get a chance to try it out I will post a follow up.

Again check out Constructing a guide scope from a finder scope for instructions on putting one together yourself.

Setting Up My Observing Laptop

For Christmas my wife got me an Orion StarShoot AutoGuider and I am really looking forward to trying it out. The weather Christmas weekend was a no-go for observing but hopefully we will have some clear skies over the New Years holiday. I decided to take some time to set up my laptop for observing. I have an older Dell Inspiron 6000 that is in pretty good shape. I replaced the battery in it about 6 months ago, and it is a pretty decent machine that should work well for my observing and guiding laptop.

The laptop is several years old and it was used for work, but I have not even powered it on in the last three months so the first thing I decided to do was reload Windows XP Professional and start with a clean slate. Why Windows XP and not Windows 7? Well a lot of the drivers and programs are not ready for Windows 7 yet, and I own a copy of Windows XP Pro. What I have seen of Windows 7 looks great, but XP is a pretty solid OS and I should not have any problems with drivers or getting programs to run on it. So I installed XP, loaded all the Dell drivers (sound, video, chipset, etc), and ran Windows update to install SP3 and all the latest and greatest updates.

After the clean OS install and updates I set up the wireless networking with my home network, I installed Avast Home Antivirus and Firefox. Installed the Xmarks plugin for Firefox so I can sync all my astronomy bookmarks with my desktop. I installed the TwitKit plugin in case I want to tweet while observing. I also installed the Adobe Reader since most of the manuals for my equipment, cameras, and software are available in pdf format.

Then I installed the drivers for my Celestron NexImage Solar System Imager and the Orion StarShoot AutoGuider. Both of them installed without issue. I installed AMCAP for capturing images with the NexImage and PHD Guiding to use with the AutoGuider. Tested the connections to the camera and autoguider, everything seems to be working well.

I installed the Hand Control Firmware and Motor Control Firmware update utilities for my scope from Celestron. Since the laptop does not have any external serial ports I also installed the drivers for my USB serial port. I tested the connection to my Celestron GOTO hand controller, no problems there.

Even though I will probably do my image processing on my desktop (more CPU and RAM – much much faster) I installed Deep Sky Stacker and RegiStax just in case it may be needed.

Stellarium planetarium software is installed for observation session planning and star charts for observation sessions. It is configured with my default observing location (my backyard) and my settings for displaying objects.

I installed the Astronomical Observation Log database program I found here. One of my New Year’s resolutions is going to be to better document my observation sessions. This looks like a pretty good little program that should help me do that. I have a notebook and a log book for logging, but I usually get caught up in observing, figure I will log it later, and just never do. I usually post something to SuffolkSky about my observations, but it is not really the same as (and should not substitute) a log entry in my log book. I am also going to try to come up with a good post template for my observing and imaging logs.

So that’s about it. I think I have everything on installed that I am going to need – at least for now. Pretty basic setup and it should work great for the purpose. Will probably pick up an inexpensive USB HUB that I can attach to the tripod to help reduce the number of the cables and a small folding table to keep things off the ground and organized.

Looking forward to a clear sky and I hope to observe and capture some images of Mars in January and maybe Saturn. Also, can’t wait to try out the autoguider and image some more deep sky objects.

Satellite Tracking Software

I ran across this http://www.astronomylog.co.uk/2009/08/20/satellite-tracker/ over at Astronomy Log.

Have not had a chance to check it out yet, looks like it was designed for a Meade scope but there are options to set it up for a Celestron.

Will let you know when I get a chance to try it out.

Stellarium Version 0.10.2

A new version of Stellarium was released earlier this month. Download the Stellarium 0.10.2 from http://www.stellarium.org/

Stellarium is planetarium software that allows you to get a view of the sky past, present, and future. Awesome tool for planning your observation sessions.