23″ Clark Refractor – A good club scope? Yes!

Would you consider a 23” refractor a good club scope? I would! One of my astronomy clubs, the Roper Mountain Astronomers, holds their monthly meetings at the Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville, SC. We have a good relationship with the RMSC, supporting the Friday Starry Nights weekly at the Planetarium/observatory. This allows us regular access to the big 23” Clark refractor at the Charles Daniel Observatory. This telescope is the sister to the 24” At Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and also has notoriety as the telescope mentioned at Princeton University, in the radio drama “War of the Worlds”.

23" Clark Refractor -image by Andrew Cooke

23″ Clark Refractor -image by Andrew Cooke

After our last club meeting, some of us took the opportunity to look through the big scope. Now, the unfortunate part of this story is that this beautiful instrument is not far from the center of the growing city of Greenville, with its accompanying light pollution. That said, we’ve had some wonderful views of the planets and brighter objects in the sky. Its native focal length, around 10,000mm, makes it tough for wide field objects, but compact objects like globular clusters fill the field nicely. On one occasion the telescope operator, club member and RMSC staff, Lee Ott, and I had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of Stephen’s Quintet galaxy cluster high overhead on a moonless night, from within the city.

Last Thursday evening, the highlight object was Saturn. Even with the moon at almost 1st quarter phase Saturn provided a pleasant view in the eyepiece. The five smaller moons that circle close to the planet popped out immediately. The Cassini division was crisp. I was even able to discern the shadow of the rings on the planet’s disk. Even the cloud bands on the disk of the planets showed themselves with the muted colors you see in some of the better planetary images found on the internet, or maybe captured with your own imaging equipment.

Of even greater significance than the views through this scope is the thought of the historical scientific work, and the great astronomers of the past who may have used this instrument to help shape the knowledge of the universe we share today.

If you find yourself in or around Greenville, SC on a Friday night, try to make plans to visit the RMSC. They have two planetarium shows and viewing through the big scope, as well as others on the lawn, provided in support by members of the Roper Mountain Astronomers. Even on cloudy nights Lee offers a tour of the observatory and provides some of the the history behind this great scope.

This beautiful image of the telescope was taken by club member Andrew Cooke.


Paramount MX+ finally under the stars

My  Paramount MX+ mount was ordered specifically to be installed in the Transit Dreams Observatory, once I  complete it’s construction. Since I decided to wait for the summer heat to break before continuing on building the observatory, the mount has been sitting here on the floor in my house. I decided to set it up in my telescope room in the house to check out its operation and learn to use The SkyX.

It wouldn’t be safe to mount it on the steel pier I bought  without bolting the pier to the concrete floor.  But, that wouldn’t go over to well with the wife, so I designed an alternate means to check it out.

MX+ Adapter plate

MX+ Adapter plate

I have a Celestron CGE Pro tripod I picked up from my club in NY, and made an adapter to mount the MX+ on it.  I glued two pieces of ¾” plywood together, and mounted T-nuts to match the hole pattern of the MX+.  I then drilled and counter-bored a hole in the center of my adapter to bolt it to the tripod, while allowing the base plate of the mount to lie flat upon it.  I used 3/8”x24 cap screws with nylon washers so I could attach the mount to the plate without marring the finish.  I mounted the 5” refractor and balanced the mount with cameras, etc. attached. (see equipment)

I practiced homing the mount, slewing to objects, setting up my meridian delay position, and setting up the park position for the scope.  I also learned my way around The SkyX, setting up my menu bar buttons and learning how to create observing lists, and set up equipment configurations.  I also worked with the camera add-on, creating my dark library for photography, and checked out the manual operation of my Moonlight focuser.

This past week was the first time the weather allowed me an opportunity to get it out under the stars, check out its performance, and start the learning curve of making everything work together. I was hopeful of learning the process of aligning the mount, sorting out T-point, and working with the camera add-on.

My first order of business was aligning the mount to the pole.  Since I did not buy the $2000 tripod I did not have as much flexibility in aligning the azimuth of the mount. I did my usual routine of using a smart phone compass for initial set up.  I was close, but not close enough.  The MX+ has adjustability, but it’s limited. While doing the rough polar alignment routine, I found that the pole was just beyond the azimuth adjustment capability of the mount.  I ended up rotating the loaded tripod a few degrees to make it work.  Of course, I had to re-level the mount.  I expected the T-point routine to be more complicated, but after a couple of rounds, I got the hang of it,(thanks to Richard Wright and his YouTube videos). I had setup my camera equipment configurations ahead of time, so I was able to use the camera to solve the fields.  Some haze and passing clouds interfered with some of the model points, but I found by increasing the exposure length to 16 seconds, most of the plate solves were successful.

I ran a 12 point model, followed the recommended adjustments and then did a 25 star pointing model and adjusted again.  I’m not sure if I needed to do anything further after mechanically adjusting the mount, but I found my slews put the object in the field of view of the camera, and the closed loop slew feature solved the image, and moved the mount to put the object dead center in the field.

The camera add-on that came with The SkyX will take some getting used to.  In the past, the bulk of my Astro-imaging was done with a Canon DSLR and a software capture program known as BYEOS (Backyard EOS). It was relatively easy to use.  When I got my new ccd camera I started working with Maximdl.  It’s more complicated, but is full of useful features.  The SkyX  camera add-on is not a complex as maxim, but it doesn’t appear to share the same features either, especially with multiple images and filters.  Maybe it’s just the layout of the program I need to get used to.

My goal for the software end of this adventure is to be able to get what I need image wise, without the complexity of having 4-5 different software packages work together without hiccups.  If I can get that out of the camera add-on it would be great.

Another part of the learning curve is the motorized focuser and @Focus2 software within the SkyX.  I was going through the features trying to figure out the software when it took over and started taking pictures and adjusting focus.The end result looked pretty good, but I have no idea how it started (I must have clicked something somewhere).  This one will take more research.

M 39_600sec_uncalibrated

M 39_600sec_uncalibrated

I was able to capture basic images with the program without issue. I took some test shots of various objects, and some showed a small amount of trailing while others produced rounder stars. The image of M39 is an uncalibrated 10 minute sub frame with the luminance filter in place on the Atik One 6.0 camera.  The field is 45’ x 36’ in size @ .98 arc sec/pix.  This was the best unguided shot.

My one serious issue with the software was my inability to get it to guide.  Each attempt brought an error message and a failure to calibrate.  I have to do more investigating to resolve the issue.  It’s probably somewhere in the parameter setup.  I did skip the calibration and it did guide for a short while before the errors started building.  I retreated to my old method, using PHD2 and guiding on-camera instead of Direct Guide on the mount with the SkyX add-on.  I got it to calibrate and guide beautifully without issue.

I did manage to get some images of comet C/2015 F4 Jacques, and created a short video of its motion over the period of an hour.

It was a good first light for the equipment, and I’m sure I’ll get all of “my” issues straightened out. Many of my issues revolve around trying to tackle multiple learning curves at the same time.  New mount and software, my first ccd camera, image capture software, motorized focuser, etc.



Perseid Meteor Shower 2015

Wednesday night August 12th was a great night for viewing Perseid meteors. The promise of a near new moon, and finally a clear night, had me eager with anticipation as I headed into the North Carolina Mounatins for the evening. The air above Grassland Mountain in Marshall, NC was chilly, but clear. The Grassland Observatory owned and operated by the Astronomy club of Asheville hosted the observing event for members and their guests. There were about 4 dozen of us in and around the big roll off roof observatory.  Early in the evening many of us gathered around the 16” SCT and viewed some familiar favorites like Saturn, M13 and M92, and later on the Double cluster (one at a time in the SCT), Uranus and some double stars.

Milky Way above Grassland Mountain-by Alan Davis

Milky Way above Grassland Mountain-by Alan Davis

After a while many of us found our way to blankets and lawn chairs to settle in for what turned out to be a spectacular night for observing meteors.  As the Milky arched above, nearly horizon to horizon, we watched dozens of meteors streak across the sky.  More than a dozen made long arcs over 25 degrees in length, and blazed brighter than Venus at its best. There were even a couple of fireballs which left twisted trains of smoke and broke apart as they disappeared. One interesting note is the sighting of several meteors that seemed to originate form a similar point in the south, perhaps from another minor meteor stream.  I know there are a couple of active ones at this time.  I should have been more focused to determine their origin.

A few of us had binoculars with so I gave a little impromptu guided tour of some of the Summer clusters across the sky.  We started at easy to find stars and then using the “clock” to move field by field to some Summer highlights. It had been a while since I’d done much visual observing with binoculars, so I stuck to the more familiar objects I could easily locate and direct people to. Some of the objects we viewed were M52, M34, M39, the Coathanger, Andromeda Galaxy, M33, the Double Cluster, The Perseus Stellar association by Mirfak, M22, M24 and one of my favorites NGC 7789.  This object was more of a challenge for some to see its soft glow among the stars of Cassiopeia.  We were even able to make out the North American Nebula and Gulf of Mexico.  Its neighbor the Pelican Nebula was faintly visible as well.

My intention that evening was to take some wide field images of constellations, hoping to capture a meteor or two, but technical difficulties got in the way.  I probably enjoyed the evening more, not having to tend to a camera all night.  One of my friends, Alan Davis, was also imaging and caught some nice Milky Way views, but no meteors. He took the image of the southern Milky Way, with the lodge at the top of the mountain in the background. There is sky glow at the horizon, but visually it wasn’t as obtrusive as the image might indicate.  In fact, it was one of the best views I’ve had of our galaxy stretching across the heavens.  Most of the time the star fields look like hazy cirrus clouds in the sky.  That night they looked like storm clouds.  The Cygnus arm was very well defined by the dust of the central bar.  It was the first time I could see mottled definition in the star fields and the complete outline of the Milky Way, like the way it’s depicted in the charts.

Among the meteor showers I’ve observed this one is second only to the meteor storm of the Leonids in November of 2000. It was definitely worth the nearly two hour trip into the mountains.

Thanks goes to Dominic Lesnar, our club President, for hosting this great night (and for the chocolate chip cookies)!


Astronomy Art

One of my friends from the Astronomy Club of Asheville is an accomplished artist. Her name is Diane Chambers.  She works with watercolors. Since she also has more than a passing interest in astronomy, she’s created some beautiful  watercolor paintings inspired by astronomical images.

Bug Nebula- Watercolor by Diane Chambers

Bug Nebula- Watercolor by Diane Chambers

I was lucky enough to win this painting, she donated, of the “Bug Nebula”, at last December’s annual club fund raiser auction at our holiday social.  It’s just one example of Diane’s fine work.  Please visit her website  at http://pdchambers.wix.com/artist#!outer-space/cdh5 and view the rest of her “outer space” gallery and the other beautiful work she’s done.



Pardon My Appearance

The last time I created a web presence was for my son’s high school lacrosse team in 1996.  Since that time the features and options for web development have grown exponentially, just like our knowledge of the cosmos.

I had an idea of how I wanted to layout the information on this site, and like most things I found I needed to make adjustments along the way.  For those not making your first visit here, I’ve changed some of the pages and the menu system for navigation.

I’ve eliminated the static pages for asteroids and equipment.  I believe as I add data to hose subjects, reading the page will be cumbersome.  The information on those pages have been moved to the blog posts.  I apologize to those of you who left comments on those pages.  I have no known methodology to transfer that info to the guestbook.  You may reenter your comments in the guestbook, or not, as you choose.  The comments that were there were all general in nature and not specific to the page contents.  The equipment menu item has been removed and the asteroid menu item now directs you to the asteroid categorized posts, since that is one of my major interests.

For easier navigation I’ve removed the calendar from the side menu and replaced it with “Blog Topics”.  This will allow the user to direct their attention to posts for a particular interest.  The “Recent Posts” show all of the latest entries.

Thanks for your patience and support.


Imaging Equipment for the T.D. Observatory

Observatory setup

Observatory setup

I have been imaging with various types of equipment during the past 2 years.  When I complete the observatory I’m building, this is the equipment that will be permanently installed.  In the future I plan to move to a larger telescope.  The Paramount MX+ should have no trouble carrying up to a 14″ SCT.

Paramount MX+ Robotic mount
Explore Scientific ES127ED APO 127mm F7.5 (for now)
Moonlite 2.5” motorized focuser
Atik One 6.0 ccd camera with internal filter wheel
Astronomik RGB filters
Orion 50 mm Guide Scope
SBIG ST-I Guiding camera

Asteroid 2004BL86

Asteroid 2004BL86, a fast mover, passed within 3 Earth-Moon distances on January 27, 2015.  I captured its passage through Cancer using a Canon 60da DSLR mounted on my ES 127mm refractor.  The video above is combination of about 265 individual 1 second exposures at ISO6400. That was the only way I could capture its motion without an elongated image of the asteroid.

The image below shows the track of the asteroid.  It was produeced by stacking all of the frames together on the background stars.  The gaps you see are frames that were omitted because of defects or delays between images.  The asteroid was quite dim so each frame had to be enhanced in Photoshop with levels and curves to brighten it and improve the contrast.

Asteroid  2004BL86 on 1-27-15

Partial Solar Eclipse 11-3-13



On November 13, 2013 there was a partial solar eclipse visible from my location in South Carolina. The moon was partially covering the solar disk as the Sun was rising.  The whole event only lasted 5 minutes before it was over.

The view through the morning air was quite turbulent.  The Suns disk was wavering like the mirage you see driving down the highway on a summer’s day.

In the foreground is my ES127ED Refractor with the Canon 60da attached mounted on my Celestron Cgemdx mount.  I used a Lenovo laptop with BYEOS to record video of the eclipse. I needed to setup on the driveway at the front of my property to be able to point at the eastern horizon.

In the background is my Stellarvue SV80 ED I used to observe the eclipse visually . It was mounted on an Orion Versa-Go II Alt/Az mount.

The three solar filters, (127mm, 80mm, 8×50 finder), are homemade using Baader solar film.

Here is the image I captured through the wavering atmosphere.

Partial Solar Eclipse_11-3-13

Partial Solar Eclipse_11-3-13

Baby steps on my learning curve imaging the skies

On my homepage, I speak of the differences between the varying styles, skills, and artistic preferences of different imagers on the same object. In this post I’ll be speaking about my own trip up the learning curve of taking raw data and turning it into something you’re proud to share with others.

With this post I am by no means presenting myself as an expert in processing, as you’ll plainly see in the final image. I have traveled some distance down the road of knowledge, but I consider myself a novice at best. My purpose is to encourage those like me who have an interest in astrophotography to push ahead down that road, even when you get frustrated after hours of manipulating an image and you just can’t get it to look like those magazine pictures. It’s also a warning to those who think it’s “easy”. “Just go out and spend a lot of money on equipment and the magazines will be falling over, looking to print your images.”

Producing an acceptable image, in my opinion, requires a solid foundation in three areas; solid equipment, procedures and the process of gathering data, and the ability to capture the complete dynamic range of an object through processing the combined raw data into an image.

The images I am presenting are of an often imaged object, M42- The great Orion Nebula. The data was collected in October 2013 and the various versions were all processed between then and November 2014. Each image uses the same data with the exception of the first two. They did not have the benefit of the 2 sec exposures that were added to the later versions.

The equipment used consisted of the following:
Explore Scientific ES127ED APO refractor F7.5
Orion 50mm guide scope
Celestron Cgemdx mount
Canon 60da DSLR
SBIG ST-I guide camera

BYEOS for image capture
PHD for guiding
Deep Sky Stacker for calibration and stacking
Photoshop CS5 for processing

I captured (35) 30 second subframes at ISO 1600, 6 darks. No flats and No bias.

Right off the bat you can see my first weak area is in data collection. I should have taken many more subs, and added bias and flat frames. I write it all off as rookie impatience and a little ignorance. I have since learned it’s all about the data; data, data, and more data. What you’ll see apparent in all the images is excess noise, although I did get better at reducing it as I learned more, it was at the expense of some of the sharpness. One of the other issues is the slight trailing of the stars, even with guiding. Guiding by itself has a learning curve to master and I probably did not have the mount balanced as well as it should have been.

M42 stacked

Stacked sub frames

This first image was my original take. Now, I had seen images where the trapezium was visible and not blown out, but I had no idea how to do it. I had also read about levels and curves, but had never tried to use them before. This image is almost exactly what was produced from the stacked set of sub frames. I was blown away at the amount of detail the Canon 60da was able to capture.

M42 30 sec

30 second sub frame



I was a little surprised that the red hues that were visible in the sub frames were now washed out after stacking. I played with the levels and curves but the image got away from me real fast and I backed off.




M42 stretched

Stretched with levels and curves

After messing with levels and curves I was able to bring out more of the extended nebulosity at the expense of the core. One of my club members commented on my image after posting to the Yahoo group: “You’ve blown up the Trapezium”. They were right!


My next task was to learn how to recover the Trapezium. I had heard about masking, but didn’t know how to use it. I turned to You Tube and my prayers were answered. After some diligent searching I found some videos that helped me to figure it out.

2 second Trapezium

2 second Trapezium


The technique I would use would be to insert some short exposure (2-sec) frames into the image and blend it in with a mask and feathering. I was able to accomplish what I was looking for, even if the finished result was not as perfect as it should be. I knew over time and practice my skills would improve. Even with some of my recent work, I still need to perfect these techniques.

M42 trapezium mask

Masked core to show Trapezium


The next thing that bothered me was the lack of color. Many of the images had had seen had beautiful hues of Blue, red and pink. I was able to bring out more color in the image by playing with the Hue and saturation, and selective color adjustments in Photoshop. I was able to bring up the color and use the different hues to highlight different portions of the nebula.

M42 saturation

Increased color saturation


In the final image in the series I started looking at the more advanced features of Photoshop and I was able to bring out a higher level of contrast in the range of brightness levels this nebula presents using the High-Pass filter. I like the way this image came out, although some might say it was over sharpened and over saturated. Again, this is a difference in artistic preference. This image and the one above present slightly different “looks” for this object.  I like them both equally.

M42 Sharpened

Sharpened for contrast

I’ve learned a lot from reprocessing this image over and over. There are many reasons why this image never reached the perfection I was hoping for. Sky conditions were not perfect. Even with 30 second sub frames the stars were bloated from poor seeing. In the last iterations I tried using star masks and reducing star size, but could not get it where I wanted it to be. I also suffered from imperfect tracking and guiding. The techniques of setting up aligning and setting the right parameters in the software make a big difference in the quality of the data.

I also learned that I have to take bias and flat frames to help reduce the imperfections produced by the optics and electronic noise of digital cameras. As a new imager I was anxious to produce that image I could show off to my friends. I really should have collected at least another hour or two of data to help increase the signal to noise ration and improve the background of the image.

I will revisit this object some day and give it the proper attention it deserves. Maybe by then my skills will have improved enough that everyone loves my image.


Additions to Galaxy Gallery

I added a few more of my images to the Galaxy gallery today. The images I’ve posted so far have been captured over the last year and a half to two years. With my first posts, I intended to add in all of the technical information as I added the images to the gallery, but I soon realized that it would take me the rest of the year to get my images up. So I decided to add all the images and then highlight some of the technicals.

Most of the images were captured with an Explore Scientific ED127mm F7.5 Triplet APO refractor on a Celestron Cgemdx mount.  I use an SBIG STi guider with PHD  for guiding on a separate guide scope. Some of the images were taken on a Stellarvue 105mm F7 APO refractor, Stellarvue 80mm F7 ED Doublet, and a Stellarvue 60mm F5.5 Doublet APO, mounted on an Ioptron ZEQ25gt equatorial mount.

The color images with the exception of M104 were taken with a Canon 60da DSLR or Rebel XT.  I used a 35mm F2.0 Nikon lens on the Canon for the wide field shots.

M104 and the monochrome images are the first “test” shots with my new (April) Atik One 6.0 ccd camera and built in filter wheel with Astronomik RGB filters. The summer weather and other projects have kept the imaging to a minimum this year, so far.