Observing programs

The July 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope has a couple of good articles on structured observing, going out at night with a specific plan to do something systematic. That seems like a good idea to me, would help me focus.

One of the articles specifically suggests the AstroLeague Observing Programs. It’s basically merit badges for astronomers, you record observations in a log and get a commemorative pin when you complete enough of a program. Well $30/yr members get the pin; cheapskates can just work from the website for free.

Some programs that look good for beginners: Binocular Messier, Constellation Hunter, Deep Sky Binocular, Universe Sampler, Messier Telescope.


Astrophotography without a telescope

Something I’m wondering about if it’s possible: getting some of the pleasure of amateur astrophotography without a telescope. Just start with raw image data captured from someone else and posted online, then do all the processing yourself. Sure it’s not as fun as making the exposure yourself, particularly the sense that somehow you didn’t acquire the image yourself. But my impression looking at astrophotos is that the real artistry and creativity is in the image processing anyway. Also maybe it makes sense to start with the software, since that’s much less of an investment than the telescope and mount and imaging system. If I don’t find hours of processing an image until it’s just right fun, it’s unlikely I’ll find it fun first spending hours and $$$$s acquiring an image, then more hours processing it until it’s just right.


Fancy scope options

Keep thinking about buying a big fancy new telescope. I know it’s foolish to spend $2000+ on a hobby I barely do once a month, but shopping for gear is fun. Here’s what I want:

  • Something very easy to set up. If it takes 30 minutes to polar align, I’m not going to use it.
  • Computerized Go-To. Programmable, at that, with an open interface. The SkySafari SkyWire compatibility list is useful here as is the expanded list for SkyFi.
  • A mount capable enough to do guided hour+ exposures. The advice I’ve gotten means that means I need an equatorial mount, the cheaper alt/az mounts just aren’t accurate enough to hold a long exposure. Some possibility a double-fork alt/az mount might work (Meade LX or Celestron CPC) with a wedge mount.
  • Optics: ??? Honestly no idea. I want something that will make it possible to do astroimaging, hopefully with DSLR prime and/or a high quality webcam. I need to understand focal length and speed and that stuff before buying anything.

Possibilities in the ~$2000 range:

  • Celestron CGEM or CGEM HD. Equitorial.
  • Celestron AVX: Equitorial, lighter than the CGEM.
  • Celestron CPC. Dual fork alt/az option.
  • Meade LX90, LX200. Dual fork alt/az.
  • Meade LX80. Funky multi-mode mount. Too much the budget option? Not in online store.

Things to learn about:

  • Wedge mounting
  • Astroimaging mounting options
  • Telescope optics: focal length, speed, etc
  • Protocols for mount control
  • Alignment programs, convenience and speed
  • Is it possible (sensible?) to build my own mount?
  • Do I have a clear view of Polaris from the house?

Basic astrophotography

Great article on beginner astrophotography options, on using equipment you may already own to do something interesting. (via Reddit) Some ideas to follow up:

Try using a Barlow to change the focal point on my 8″ Dob, so I can do prime focus images with the old DSLR I have knocking around. Apparently this will work, although the weight and balance may be a problem.

Look into software to manage DSLR focus. The article recommends APT but that’s windows-only (maybe Wine?). Nebulosity looks promising on a Mac. More software options in this old list.

Read the /r/astrophotography FAQ.

GoTo scopes and astrophotography

I’m looking for a telescope upgrade over the basic Orion 8″ Dobsonian I started with. Main things I want are GoTo and the ability to do introductory astrophotography. I’ve been hoping to avoid an equatorial mount because the hassle of setting the scope up precisely seems like an impediment to casual use, particularly since my usual viewing site doesn’t have a clear view of Polaris.

So I asked a knowledgable-seeming guy on Reddit for his advice on whether an alt/az mount with GoTo was sufficient for long exposure astrophotography, and here’s his reply. (Left anonymous).

You can get limited results from a non-equatorial single-fork mount for DSO photography, if the mount supports “wedge” mounting. This aligns the azimuth axis with the earth’s rotational axis and allows for equatorial-like tracking for long exposure photography, without field rotation.

This is a good option if you are doing wide-field imaging (which is also good for beginners). The tracking motors in most single-fork alt-az mounts are simply not accurate enough for high-power long exposures. The NexStar SE mount, for example, doesn’t even use worm gears (the NexStar “Evolution” mount does, however).

The double-fork models from Meade (LX series) and Celestron (CPC series) are wedge-mountable and people are able to get very good results out of them. Wedge-mounting can be an advantageous configuration, especially when dealing with large, heavy telescopes that would require an obscenely expensive equatorial mount to carry properly.

That said, if you’re serious about getting started in DSO photography, you really should invest in a proper equatorial mount.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised there’s no shortcuts.