Aug 11, 2014

Blue Star Observatory

I have not had much time to use my new telescope & camera because I have started a new project.

I have finally decided to build my very own personal observatory. I have already started work on it an hopefully it will be completed by the end of November. I have started a new blog page dedicated to its construction so anyone who wishes can follow my progress.

Here is the link to the blog - Blue Star Observatory

I will get back into Astrophotography
 as soon as my observatory is complete!

Nov 3, 2012

1 - Greetings

Here I will attempt to document my endeavors in Astrophotography as best I can in hopes of helping others who are considering taking up this amazing hobby as I have. I will post my failures and achievements for all to view and learn from my experiences with astrophotography. I will also list all the equipment I have purchased and how much each item costs so you can get a good idea of how much money you will need to invest in this hobby.

Keep in mind that there are many other types of equipment you can purchase. Some more expensive & some less expensive. This is just the rout I have taken. I try not to spend too much on this hobby at first. I want to gain some experience and knowledge before diving in deeper into my bank account!

2 - About me

Possum Kingdom State Park
I am a native Texan in my late 40's. Currently living in a city that is right in between Dallas and Fort Worth. Not a very good place to live for someone who wants to see stars at night. The light pollution is horrible here,(see this link for light pollution map) but I still manage to make use of my telescope here with somewhat manageable results. I will usually travel for about 100 miles (160 km) in order to find a location that has very little light pollution, preferably a state park or an RV park since they provide electricity to run all my equipment. I will either go to Possum Kingdom Lake State Park or Lake Whitney State Park. Both are about 100 miles from home. About every 3 or 4 months I will travel to Fort Stockton TX, which is about 900 miles from home. The night sky is amazingly clear there with 0% light pollution. The McDonald Observatory is located about 30 miles from the RV park that I stay at.
If I am by myself I will use my camping tent.
I use my RV when my wife tags along.

3 - In the beginning...

My first telescope 2010
It all started on Christmas day 2010. That is when I received a telescope as a gift from one of my daughters. It was a Meade RB-60 telescope with a 60mm aperture & a 700mm focal length F/11.7. The quality is not very good, but it was a perfect starter telescope for me. Its cost is about $100 dollars.

The first time I used it (first light) was when I got hooked. I took it out and focused on the moon. I was simply amazed at what I could see from my patio. The detail was like nothing I had seen for myself, only in magazine pictures. I then focused on what I thought was the brightest star in the sky, only to discover that it was not a star but the planet Saturn. WOW! I wanted more.

After several months of gazing at the few bright objects in my night sky, I had  what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why don't I connect a webcam to my telescope so I can view the objects on my laptop and record pictures and video of the things I see? I already had a small Acer Aspire Notebook  (a small & cheap laptop) and a cheap Logitech C120 webcam. So I taped the webcam to the telescope eyepiece and connected it to my notebook. I had a hard time finding objects and focusing on them, not to mention trying to track the objects and keep them in view, but after a couple of hours of adjustments and tinkering I was finally able to get some images. I was able to capture Saturn. I took a few images and videos.

Saturn taken with webcam

I was pleased with the results at the time but I later wondered if it was possible to obtain better quality images with webcams, so I started doing some research on-line to see if anyone else was using webcams on telescopes. As you can imagine, I found tons of information and how-to videos on this subject. After spending a couple of weeks digging into all this information, I decided to buy a couple of webcams that were recommended by various people on-line. I went shopping on Ebay for a used HP HD4110 and a used Logitech Pro 5000 webcam. I bought them for $45 and $20 respectively. I also purchased from Ebay a Webcam-to-Telescope adapter for the Logitech Pro for $12. The HP webcam is 1080p high resolution and the Logitech was highly recommended. Both webcams required some simple modifications to remove the lenses. The Youtube how-to videos were very helpful with this. As soon as a clear dark sky was available, I did a side-by-side comparison with all 3 webcams and was disappointed with the results. All 3 webcams produced almost identical images and videos. The HP was slightly better, but not by much. The clarity is not very good as you can see in the above picture and video. I decided that I wanted a better picture. That meant I needed better equipment to achieve the results I wanted. The quality of the telescope I had was not suited for what I was trying to do. Time to do some research for a new telescope.
 Yes... I was now hooked on this thing they called "Astrophotography", but I didn't know it yet.

4 - Point of no return

By mid 2011 I had started looking for a better and bigger telescope. I didn't want a low quality scope, but I also didn't want to spend thousands of dollars on this hobby. At least not yet. I wanted to convince myself that for me this was a serious hobby first, so I set a spending limit of $500. I researched telescopes for a couple of months before finally deciding on one. By October of 2011 I had chosen to purchase a Celestron 130SLT Computerized Telescope. This is a Newtonian type telescope with a 130mm aperture & 650mm focal length. This one comes with a computerized "Go-To" tripod mount that tracks objects automatically. The best part is that I found it for $425 (tax included) at Fry's Electronics, and I just happen to have a Fry's credit card. There was no turning back now. I'm committed to this hobby now. I had just passed the point of no return.

When I took it out for "first light" I was delighted with my choice. Compared to my old Meade RB-60, this one was light years ahead in quality and technology. Setup was not very complicated and the computerized star tracking system was a technological marvel. It was love at first light. The quarter moon was crystal clear in my eyepiece. It was as if I could reach in and touch the craters through the scope.  I programmed the Go-To control to slew to Jupiter and pressed enter. The scope quickly started to rotate and align itself to the planet. I looked in the eyepiece and there it was, Jupiter with four of its moons clearly visible. The tracking system kept in view very accurately for as long as I wanted. I switched to a higher magnification eyepiece & 2x barlow and was able to distinguish Jupiter's cloud belts. The 2x barlow I was using was one that came with the old Meade. As I used it more and more I became better familiar with all the features and settings. This was a good telescope for what I needed.

One night I was trying to look at the full moon but it was way to bright to see through the eyepiece. So bright that I could not look at it for more than half a second before having to turn away. I had to  purchase my first of many accessories. A set of eyepiece filters. I found a 7 piece on Ebay for $35. I then bought a $20 yellow case to store them in along with the 2 eyepieces and old 2x barlow. I also purchased a storage trunk at Walmart for $20 to store the telescope, tripod, and accessory case in. The Go-To tripod uses 12 AA batteries, which get expensive to replace after a couple of times, so I also purchased an Celestron 115v AC adapter for the tripod at $36. I think all these accessories are essential to protect the investment I have put into this hobby.

Orion Flip-Mirror & Webcam
I later decided I should test the webcams (I had previously purchased) on this new telescope to see how well they performed. I needed a better way to be able to align and focus the telescope with the webcam attached, so I purchased an Orion Flip-Mirror for $132. When I attached the Flip-Mirror and webcam to the telescope I could not get the proper focus. I tried all 3 webcams and every possible adjustment I could think of to no avail. But when I attached the webcam to the telescope without the Flip-Mirror I had no problem focusing. I then determined that the Flip-Mirror placed the webcam sensor to far away from the focal point. The Flip-Mirror was of no use to me. I will keep it just in case I need it later. The webcam images were better with this telescope but it could only see very bright objects. The webcam sensor could not pick-up dim stars, so I gave up on the webcam approach and started doing some research on photographing dim stars.
That is when I saw the term "Astrophotography" for the first time. "That is exactly what I want to do", I said to myself. Need more research!

5 - Digiscoping

By early 2012 I had researched enough information on Astrophotography to almost scare me away from this hobby. The equipment was so expensive. There are special CCD cameras, high-tech tripods, telescopes, & tracking software, etc. Luckily I came across a website that talked about a low budget technique used for Astrophotography called Digiscoping, also referred to as Afocal photography, which is the activity of using a digital camera to record distant images by coupling it with an optical telescope. I had just received a Nikon CoolPIX S6000 - 14 megapixle digital camera for Christmas a few month before. All I needed now was an adapter to mount the digital camera to the telescope. I found a few online, but after the bad purchase choice I had made with the Flip-Mirror, I didn't want to spend money on this mount until I was sure it would work. I decided I would make one myself. I easily made it out of scrap wood I already had, and it actually worked pretty well. It was very adjustable and able to hold the camera in place.

90% Full Moon
The first couple of pictures I took with this set-up came out very fuzzy because the whole thing would shake every time I pushed the shutter button on the camera. The good thing is that this camera came with a self-timer feature, which does away with the fuzzy picture problem. The pictures it was able to take were much better than the webcam's, but I still couldn't capture the dim stars I wanted. I learned to adjust the ISO and Exposure Compensation settings to get better photos.
M43 Great Orion Nebula

After several attempts I finally learned which setting worked best with this setup, and I was able to take some decent pictures. I took these images on a beautifully clear and dark night when I was visiting Fort Stockton, Texas. There is no light pollution there. The moon image still looks a bit out of focus but you can clearly identify craters and surface lines. The M43 Great Orion Nebula is visible along with some of its brighter companion stars. The less bright stars were not visible to this camera. Like I mentioned above, these images are better than the ones taken with the webcams, but still not the quality that I am looking for. I will need to buy a better camera to obtain the quality of images
that I am trying to capture. Need to do some research!

Venus Transit of the Sun 2012
So by mid 2012 I started to do on-line research for a better quality camera for Astrophotography. I quickly found out that this was going to be a very expensive hobby. High quality cameras can cost over a thousand dollars, not to mention the software and equipment used for tracking and processing images. I decided I would buy a mid range DSLR camera that could be used for both Astrophotography and normal everyday photography. After all, I was only a rookie at this, and I was not ready to invest thousands on this hobby. Not yet. I chose to purchase a Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera kit. I found it at Fry's Electronics for $649 dollars (tax included). This camera was perfect for what I needed. One of the key features was it's Live View 3" LCD swivel screen that makes it easy to see while attached to the telescope. I will explain more in detail in my next page DSLR Astrophotography all the settings & equipment I use with this camera setup.

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