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Bad songs about Elvis

My Protostar flocking sheets arrived yesterday, and I've had that "Black Velvet" song stuck in my head ever since. I spent a good 4 hours installing them last night and wow, what a difference. Here's what my OTA looked like after laying down just one small strip of the stuff:

I feel like I should have done before and after pictures rather than just one right after I started, but you can still see what a huge difference this stuff makes in reducing reflectivity within the tube. This should help minimize the effects of light pollution and increase contrast, particularly for brighter objects like planets.

I'm planning to take the scope out Saturday and can't wait to give all my new toys a spin. By now I think I may have spent more time working on this thing than I have actually looking through it.


Some assembly required

Jupiter's best opposition in a 59-year period AND Uranus's opposition have come and gone this week, and and I've been unfaithful to my hobby by not even going to see them at their best. Still, I plan to take the scopes up to Placerville next weekend for a proper, at least somewhat dark sky observing session.

As if two planetary oppositions weren't motivation enough, I'll be enjoying my first night out with all the new toys I finally got around to adding today. I've had a Telrad with risers sitting around for a while now, and an Orion GLP mount for even longer. Today I added both of them after finding the courage to drill into my OTA to add another dovetail base. I also added an oversized shower-cap with dessicant to the primary mirror end to prevent dew and/or dust from accumulating, swapped out my scratched base pieces for the replacements Orion sent me, added some "Magic Sliders" to the base to help with azimuth rotation, and fixed the spacing issue that was preventing my intelliscope sensors from working properly. It's been a busy day, but I have a lot to show for it and I couldn't be more excited to see everything come together.

My next upgrade project will be lining the interior of the OTA with light-absorbing material to minimize light pollution. After that maybe I'll finally get around to building an equatorial platform so I can start posting some better astrophotos. At least I have some new toys to tide me over until then.

edit: Almost forgot, I also replaced that awful yellow foam in my eyepiece/filter case with a nice matching gray. The frame is hot-glued in, with some loose, adjustable spacers for keeping everything snug. Astronomy is looking up, as they say. (Sorry...)


Night of The Ghostly Cheerio

Another astronomyforum cross-post.

My little forecast bar went dark blue just in time for the weekend, so being the good student that I am I decided I'd head out to darker skies rather than catch up on math homework. I was supposed to receive a Telrad in the mail on Friday but it was delayed because my local FedEx driver is lazy and worthless, but I digress.

I brought a friend of mine who has been pathetically bored because his arm is in a cast, which meant the girlfriend had to drive seperately. She called me a few times on the way to tell me to slow down because her car "doesn't have the horsepower [my car] does." I guess Corolla's can't do 50mph downhill now?

After we got up to the site I drove my scope up the hill instead of having to carry it like last time. I must say, this along with remembering to bring chairs might just save my back from going Quasimodo. (Though a bell tower doesn't seem like a bad place to observe from, now that I think about it.)

By the time I was all set up the observatory was already shutting down their CCD and getting ready to close. I recommended Jen and Brian go inside to check out the public scopes while I got everything ready to go outside. I tried setting up the COL but was getting insanely high warp values. The ground wasn't perfectly level, but it was close enough that I'd expect a better warp than -17. Once my Telrad gets here I'll take everything apart, make sure the bearings are installed correctly and do some troubleshooting. Until then I'm shooting from the hip.

While my posse was inside I found Epsilon Lyrae, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed in the resolution. E1 and E2 were split just fine even in the finder, but under high mag they each only looked like slightly elongated stars with no clear separation of the "double double" companions. Should it really look like this through 10" of aperture? If so, "double double" probably isn't the best name for it. I've found more impressive visual binaries on accident. Jen and Brian came out after a few minutes and told me they saw a nice spiral galaxy on the CCD. I think they won this round.

I wanted to get used to moving the dob around a bit more, so I went for some of the same targets as last week. This time I found M13 without help (last week a volunteer at the observatory found it for me ,) and found that it looks much more impressive under high mag. It filled the entire field of a 6mm eyepiece without getting much dimmer. Beautiful.

Next I brought up M57. I take some good-natured ribbing from Jen for the fact that I think M57 is cute and endearing and don't really know why. Brian said it looked like a "ghostly cheerio." I love it. The ring was much easier to pick out from the center tonight. I'm not sure if that's a result of better conditions and therefore higher contrast, or worse conditions and therefore the dimmer section becoming invisible. My experience with Saturn (next object) seems to indicate the latter.

Saturn tonight seemed dimmer than last week. I did shoot it fairly low on the horizon, but not so low that I'd expect such a difference. The shadow of the rings was much harder to pick out this time, and I only saw two moons despite Stellarium showing 5. Either way, as much as I love Saturn, I feel like planetary observation is sort of a waste of this scope and the dark skies. I can look at planets anywhere, but faint fuzzies are what I drive my 60 lb. cannon 40 miles out of town for.

And how satisfying they can be... Last week I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking for M81 and M82 and never did find them. This time I was determined, but it still took me longer than it probably should have. On the way there I stumbled across a huge ovular galaxy about twice the size of M81, but with no visible detail or nucleus. I'm still not quite sure what this was, but after a little detective work using Stellarium and Google Image Search, I think it's a good chance I may have been looking at NGC3147. My first galaxy through the new scope!

After hopping down a bit further, there they were. The fish that got away. M81 and M82. Finding these was like finding the holy grail to me. I've spent way too much time and effort looking around for this one pair of objects and it finally paid off! Absolutely spectacular. I probably spent more time doing my victory dance than actually looking at these. I think Jen was just happy that I could finally shut up about them.

I poked around a bit longer but the Coyotes were out in full force again and we were all getting a little hungry. I would have loved to stay until 4 for a shot at Uranus and the latest Comet McNaught, but alas. Maybe next week.

(I stayed up at home anyway and took another peek at Jupiter through the refractor, watched the ISS pass, and saw the most impressive meteor I think I've ever seen. It was brighter than Venus, redder than Mars, had an extremely long tail and stayed visible for 4-5 seconds.)

Log with inverted sketches: (Times are probably off, and I didn't bother with Jupiter since my log sheet has 6 to a page)

New XT10i - First Light

I'm cross-posting this from, where I've been spending a lot of time lately. Sorry if it's impersonal and/or technical at times.

Last night the clouds here cleared up for the first time since assembling my new XT10i, so I decided I'd take it up to my "dark" site, a public observatory in a green zone about 45 minutes outside Sacramento. Carrying the OTA was much easier than I expected thanks to the padded case, but there was a moment of panic when I realized that the mount wouldn't fit in my trunk. I brought my girlfriend along, so the passenger seat was out of the question. Luckily I was able to fold the backseat down and slide the mount just far enough into the trunk that the OTA still fit perfectly.

After we got to where we were going I hauled everything up the hill and began to set up. Later one of the volunteers told me I didn't have to hike next time, that they allow people with bigger scopes to drive directly up to the site to unload. Is that VIP treatment or what? You guys enjoy the hike, I'll be up DRIVING my big scope up the hill.

By the time I'd finished setting up it wasn't quite dark yet, and my girlfriend decided the first target should be Venus. She was too sick to come with me when Venus and Mercury were within a couple degrees of each other back in April and she's been bummed about it ever since. Venus is Venus, but she enjoyed it either way. She described it as a "rainbowy half-moon."

After being blinded by Venus I moved up to Saturn, which was pretty impressive. I've spent many hours staring at Saturn through my little refractor this year and only once or twice seen what I thought was some banding. With my new scope I was able to easily see a crisp, clearly defined shadow despite the current edge-on angle of the rings. The difference in resolving power is truly amazing.

Next up was M13. I had a list of targets for the night that was peppered with obscure NGC objects but I decided I'd start with something easy to find. Turns out it wasn't. Now, I've gotten pretty good at shooting from the hip with my refractor, but I'm definitely not used to hugging a dob. With only a 9x50 RACI I had a difficult time finding much of anything. A volunteer got down on the floor and showed me how to line it up, then he went and found it for me. Kind of disappointing, my first glob and first DSO on the new scope and I couldn't even find it myself. On top of that, it was a bit dimmer than I was led to believe by this stupid page. I'm not bitter.

To make up for it, I went and found M57 by myself. This is easily one of my new favorites. It looks like a big cheerio! I don't know why that is so endearing to me, but it is. Jen couldn't distinguish the center of the ring until I popped in a 10mm eyepiece (119x.)

By the time I was done with M57 the observatory was shutting down and it was getting pretty late. I decided to shoot for M81 and M82 to redeem myself and call it a night. After about 20 minutes I got frustrated with it and decided to give the intelliscope controller a try. This is when I realized I'd left my level at home and wouldn't be able to get a good alignment. Oh well, back to the map. I spent another 10 minutes or so circling the area where M81 should have been, but by this point my back was suffering from lack of chair, which I also neglected to bring. Now I know.

Frustrated with my aching back and my inability to locate my favorite display of galactic cannabalism, I decided to break out the planisphere and start learning all the constellations that I can't even see back home. By this point Jen and I were the only ones still there so we sprawled out on our backs and just marveled at the milky way. She pointed out a "snaggle-toothed smiley" asterism while I hunted for guide patterns. I wanted to go back and find M13 for myself before packing up, but Jen was starting to get worried by the sound of coyotes and some other awful-sounding animal I couldn't identify... Dying rabbits maybe? We left, ate at Denny's on the way back, and got home just in time to catch a 4AM shot at Jupiter.

I brought the refractor out to the parking lot of my apartment for a quick peek. I was hoping to catch Uranus too since it's pretty close to Jupiter right now, but couldn't manage it. At 5.8 mag and 21° altitude, shooting from a bright parking lot is probably testing my limits. Either way, Jupiter made a nice end to a fun night.

I've definitely got some catch-up to do with the new dob, but if anything it's encouraged me to head out to darker skies more often. It's also made me appreciate how quick and easy it is to set up the refractor by comparison.

Here's my log with inverted sketches, sorry for the poor quality (and handwriting!)

10" Dob En Route

So I ordered a new telescope. Kind of wish I'd started out bigger rather than upgrading so soon, but I've definitely learned a lot with the 70AZ and will continue to use it. The new scope is a beast, and will only be taken out when I know it'll be safe (i.e. not at the park near my apartment.) This means searching for a new observing site that is dark, close to home, and still safe to go to late at night with expensive equipment.

It's a customized (build-a-scope) XT10i from Orion with a couple extra goodies. Namely a padded case, laser collimator, MRF, 9x50 RACI and GLP mount. What does that mean? It means that in addition to the eyepiece I'll have a multi-pattern red LED reticule, 9x magnification right-angle finder, and a green laser mounted on the front. Something like the picture at the bottom of this page, but with a green laser somewhere off to the side as well. At some point I intend to build an equatorial platform for it as well, which will allow me to track and therefore take pictures and/or observe under high magnification. That's a few months out though.

On the opposite end of the "awesome, exciting things" spectrum, summer school starts in a week and a half.


Here's a more worthy first light, and my first real attempt at astrophotography. I'm using a low budget setup (think 10-year old recycled webcam) and shooting in Sacramento from my Mom's back yard. This one's a composite of about 10-15 stills chosen from the 50+ I took tonight. Click for the full image.

(Click to enlarge)

Equipment used:
Celestron Astromaster 70AZ (70mm aperture, 900mm focal length)
Mogg-Adapted Logitech Quickcam Pro 3000
Captured via NHC Debut, Combined using Photoshop

I tried shooting Saturn tonight too, but that presented its own challenges. I'll be looking into ways of making it more practical with my current setup.

edit: Now with video!

First Light

Finally got the quickcam out today, after months of waiting to try it out with my brand spankin' new Mogg adapter. Still not sure how it'll perform at night or whether the long-exposure mod will be necessary, but it does seem to do much better in low light so far. Decent software would certainly be a big help too.

First image taken through the scope:

It's one of those pineconey pollen thingies on one of the trees across from my balcony. May have come out sharper were it less windy out today.

I'd like to get some practice in shooting the moon but the new phase just started, which is probably just as well since I should really be studying for my last two finals.

That's no moon...

I stopped by my mom's house tonight to feed the dogs and relax in the spa, where I just happened to catch my first naked-eye glimpse of the ISS as it trailed across the sky. I was planning to make a night of observing it some time soon, but tonight I just happened to be looking in the right place at the right time. Awesome.

I'd like to try and catch it through the scope next time a shuttle is docked. Coincidentally, Atlantis should be lifting off later today for its final scheduled mission, STS-132.


Dances With Planets

The other day I got my first glimpses at Venus and Mercury, which are within a few degrees of each other right now. Venus is sort of a tease in that it's incredibly bright but reveals no surface (atmospheric) detail no matter how many different combinations of filters I try. Unfiltered, it sort of looks like a little rainbow ball. Mercury, although much dimmer, was much more interesting to look at. I was able to make out the phase, which looks something like a vertical half-moon right now. Very cool.

After observing Venus and Mercury by myself, I was able to get a few people to come out yesterday for sort of a mini star party. The cloud cover didn't exactly cooperate, and we left a bit later than I'd hoped, so Mercury was a little disappointing. The best shot I could get looked dim and out of focus, and definitely didn't reveal any phasing. Still, Mercury is apparently a pretty rare thing to see, so it was cool to be able to show it off. After Mercury had set we moved into the park and looked at M42 (Orion Nebula) and then Saturn, after realizing Mars and M44 were too high for my mount. Saturn through my new 10mm eyepiece showed some light banding that I've yet to pick out through the 20mm, as well as two moons off to the west.

All in all I think it was a worthwhile night, though I'd really like to familiarize myself with some more interesting objects that can be found reliably in light-polluted Sacramento. M42 and M45 (Pleiades) are easy to find and usually pretty spectacular, but there's got to be more happening in the April sky under 7.0 magnitude. Maybe I'll look for some of them tonight. Stellarium shows lots of clusters near the winter triangle that might work nicely, but absolutely nothing near Saturn's current position. Odd.


First look at Saturn

I finally got to see Saturn tonight! I went out by myself and 5-6 homies showed at the park not long after my scope had cooled down, so I left before they had a chance to notice me. All in all I only got about 10 seconds to observe Saturn, but it was worth it.

I edited a photo taken by a Welsh astrophotographer to look more like what I saw from my humble scope:

I really need to start working on my webcam mod again so I can start taking some of my own photos. Going to try and get that done before the 22nd, assuming I can find the rest of the parts that I need. A trip to Metro Electronics may be in order.