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through November 2003
through May 2003
11.16.05 - Advanced
Imaging Conference 2005 report!
San Jose, CA – November 11-13, 2005
I enjoyed a great time this weekend at the Advanced Imaging Conference in
San Jose, CA. The attendance for this year's event increased from ~120 people in
2004 to ~180 this year.
A wealth of talent, knowledge, and ability with regard to CCD
astrophotography were present, with an all-star list of guest speakers,
including noted amateurs Rob Gendler, Johannes Schedler, Adam Block, Russ
Croman, John Gleason, Rick Bennion, Ron Wodaski, Ken Crawford, Don Goldman, and
event host, Steve Mandel. Professional presenters included Lisa Frattare and
Zolt Levay of the Hubble Heritage program; and Travis Rector of the University
Topics for discussion ranged from advanced image acquision to advanced
image processing. I greatly enjoyed the presentation by Rick Bennion about "Best Practices for Image Acquision."
Likewise, Adam Block received an ovation from the entire group when he showed us
how to salvage a particular image that we all thought to be unusable. Ron
Wodaski's very enlightening discussion on astronomical seeing was also a treat.
Event sponsors were most generous, donating a ton a great door prizes,
which, or course, I didn't win. Of special note was the presence of CCDware with
a host of new astroimaging software (including a great program by Paul Kanevsky
that inspects a telescope's collimation in real-time) and Brad Ehrhorn of RC
Optical Systems, who brought a 20" military RC that he made; portably towed and
capable of slewing 60 degrees in one second. (!)
But as always, what makes the event so great is the opportunity to rub
elbows with some of the greatest people and imagers in the world. I enjoyed
sharing time with the "European Gang," including George Sallit, Derrick Farley,
and Daniel Verschatse, who taught me how to play a great dice game while
drinking lots of beer. Likewise, sharing Sunday lunch with a table full of elite
imagers (see below) was an unbelievable blessing. But the pinnacle of my extra
curricular activities came on Sunday night when I shared some great Japanese
food (a terrific "Benihana's" type of place) with Tom Harrison, Frank "Sandy"
Barnes, Adam Block, Bob Benamati, Sean Walker, and Rob Gendler. The great
conversations carried on back at the hotel where we formed an impromptu lounge,
away from the very loud Apple Computer employees who had infested the bar area.
Sharing drinks, talkiing astronomy, and solving Adam Block's numerical
brain-teasers made for a great time as the evening wound down.
But most of all, I enjoyed the company of my friend, Bud Guinn, who drove
down to the event from Oregon. Bud's is a talented astrophotographer and
charming gentleman. We had lunch last
year in Weatherford as Bud passed through in his Texas travels. But spending
several hours shooting the astronomical “breeze,” among other things, was the
highlight of my weekend.
thanks to the Three Rivers Foundation for
the opportunity. I'm now 2 for 2 when
it comes to AICs. I've heard rumblings
that next year's event will likely be on
the East coast...hopefully, I'll be able
to make it 3 for 3.
is the Sunday Lunch gang, taken by Sky and
Telescope assistant editor Sean Walker.
Shown above on the top row, left to right,
is Frank "Sandy" Barnes
Tom Harrison (www.ironmountainobservatory.com),
and Michael Mayda (www.flickr.com/photos/mamayda/page2).
On the bottom row, left to right,
is Russ Croman (www.rc-astro.com),
Jay Ballauer (yours
truly at www.allaboutastro.com),
Tony Hallas (www.astrophoto.com),
and Rob Gendler (www.robgendlerastropics.com).
Not pictured but
still a wonderul part of the lunch crowd
are Jim Misti (www.mistisoftware.com/Astronomy/index.htm),
Bob Benamati (http://home.comcast.net/~bobbenamati),
and Sean Walker (www.skypub.com).
2.08.05 - 12.5"
RCOS Ritchey-Chrétien Preview...
already taken delivery of the Software
Bisque Paramount ME, it has been sitting
quietly adding beauty to the living
room during for almost two weeks now.
Fortunately, it no longer has
to wait alone!
beautiful 12.5" Truss Ritchey-Chrétien
Cassegrain scope, made by RC Optical
System of Flagstaff, Arizona, was delivered
today. Although its accessories and
documentation package will not arrive
until tomorrow, I'm not complaining.
who aren't familiar with the scope design,
Cassegrain uses two very difficult to
manufacture hyperboloid mirrors to yield
coma free performance across very wide
fields. This allows round stars
throughout a large chip CCD image, like
the SBIG STL cameras. Because
of the difficulty in manufacturing such
optics, these are always custom-made
from top optical makers. This
particular RC employs Star Instrument
optics by Paul Jones. While the
primary is reported to be at least 1/25
wave RMS with a very high Strehl ratio,
I'll know more for sure tomorrow when
the documentation and mirror test specifications
the scope atop the Paramount ME wasn't
too large of a problem, and I'm certainly
glad for the shorter pier height. While
the 50 lbs. OTA is not too heavy, sliding
the dovetail plate into the Paramount
Versaplate is a bit tricky, meaning
that it certainly takes two people to
safely and smartly affix the tube. In
this case, it was good to have my father
handy. Carbon fiber trusses and components
add to the light
weight of the system. The CNC machined
aluminum back and frame is as well made
as the mount on which it sits. And the Thermodyne
Case will insure safe travel when the
scope finds its way to dark skies.
not much to report right now, but I
wanted to post a preview and some beauty
shots of the setup, minus cameras and
seen this exact same setup
at the Advanced Imaging Conference (AIC)
last November, right down
to the Particle Wave Tech Monolith pier, I was well prepared for
what to expect. But for some reason
it looks much better in my livingroom!
Special thanks, as always, to
the Three Rivers Foundation for the
Arts and Sciences (3RF) for the opportunity
to image with this exquisite setup.
Now, if the weather will
just clear out, I'll put this scope/mount
to the test.
worry, I'll be sure to report on its
performance and I hope have some "first
light" eye candy as proof.
2.05.05 - "What
to Look for in a First Telescope" article updated!
Many of the articles
on the Articles page are somewhat out-of-date, which
is largely to due the everchanging world of this great
hobby. But more than that, I'm no longer as stupid
as I was when I first wrote them! So, it is my
desire to update most of my articles, especially the
stupid ones, to better reflect the point of view of
somebody who might actually know a thing or two about
The first "stupid" article
to receive this "make-over" is the article
titled, "What to Look for in a First Telescope."
To read the article, you can link directly to
Or, you can access the article through the
Be sure to come back
often to see new and updated articles. You can
always tell by looking at on the Home page where I give
information regarding the most current blogs and articles.
1.26.05 - The
ME is in the House!
Today I received shipping
of the "Software Bisque Paramount ME Robotic Telescope
Mount." Yes, it's a long title, but so many words
aren't wasted on equipment like this. Thanks to
my association with the Three Rivers Foundation for
the Arts and Sciences (3RF), I'm fortunate to have the
opportunity to use this mount for the foreseeable future.
Three boxes came to my
door step at high noon today, two of which hurt my back
when carrying them into the house. The largest
box, that includes the mount head and software, weighed
80 lbs. The next 65 lbs. box holds nothing but
the three 20 lbs. counter weights. The final
box contained all the hardware for the mount, including
the counterweight bar and Versaplate, or the top mounting
plate for the mount.
Of course, the first
thing that strikes you when you open the large box,
which was well packaged by the way, is the sheer beauty
of the mount itself. I've seen these mounts in
person many times, but opening this box is akin to opening the door
to a new Ferrari and enjoying the best of ALL possible new
car smells! Though the mount failed to emit
any detectable odor, which is perhaps a good thing,
it is a treat for the senses. Visually, the mount is
stunning, made of CNC red-anodized aluminum plating,
highlighted with black knobs and silver bolt heads.
And then, there is the sheer size! I'm very
accustomed to nice, large mounts, having toted around
the excellent Takahashi NJP for most of 2004. I've
always stated that the NJP is a great portable mount,
and after lifting the 75 lbs. Paramount head from the box, that
NJP has never seemed more portable! This German
mount was built to stay in one place. That is
Setting it Up (temporarily,
that is) ...
While I placed the mount
head onto the portable Particle Wave Tech Monolith pier
- a matching, work of art in its own right - it became
very clear that this Paramount will see only a few trips
a year away from home-base. Now, I'm a large,
strong, all-American kind of guy who has little
problem throwing around the NJP mount head, which weighs
around 50 lbs. by comparison. But the Paramount
seems twice as heavy and twice as bulky. I lifted
the mount somewhat easily onto the Monolith pier,
assisted in large part by the vast amounts
of adrenaline that was surely coursing through my body.
But unless I begin a regular dosage of steroids
sometime soon - which is not going to happen - I think my back
will continue to pay the price with each lift. I
used the four base-plate hand knobs, found in the
accessories box, to affix the mount head to the
Then, after leveling
the pier somewhat - not really important since I'm just
testing everything indoors first - I screwed in
the slick, silver counterweight shaft, which only reinforced
the beauty of the silver bolts in the mount casing. Then, I
installed the Versaplate atop the mount head, being
certain to thread the wires coming from the top of the
mount itself. Why the wires? The Paramount
has two control panels. The main "Telescope
Control System" is located on the back of the mount
head, but two large cables tunnel through the RA and
DEC axes and come out the top of the mount. The
cables pass through channel grooves in the underside
of the Versaplate and attach to a secondary electronic
panel, or interface, shown at lower-right. This
allows for CCD cameras, focusers, guiders, and other
electronics that normally clutter up the visual back
of the scope tube to connect very neatly near the tube
itself. The result is the luxury of slewing the mount
without the worry that it will choke itself on cables.
Of course, considering that this is a robotic
mount with fully unattended, remote control capabilities,
this is simply one of the ways that the Software
Bisque guys are trying to make your life easier. They
even provide space to run additional cabling yourself,
should you decide that you have other accessories that
might otherwise hang loosely off the back of the scope.
The Versaplate itself
is amazing. It can be placed in either a straight
orientation, along the scope's axis to accommodate
larger scope tubes, or in an oblong orientation to accommodate
smaller side-by-side systems. Whichever
method you choose, I assure you that there are enough
holes in the this plate to give you an unlimited number
of mounting options, regardless of the hardware you
have. It even has a Losmandy dovetail channel
ready to receive your Losmandy mounting accessories. Because
this particular mount will soon hold a 12.5" RCOS Ritchey-Chretien
Cassegrain scope that is due to arrive, hopefully,
in one more week, I opted for the traditional, straight
placement of the Versaplate.
After putting on a single
counterweight to balance my Tak FSQ-106 atop of it -
I needed something to put on it, afterall - I plugged
in the power cable, USB cable, and joystick controller.
Of course, the 20 lbs. counterweight is really
too large to balance the smallish Tak 106, but this
is the only time the mount will tote ONLY this little
scope. Still, it's always better to have more
weight on the counterweight bar, if only to keep from
accidentally loosening the clutches and watching a top-heavy
OTA hit the floor!
is somewhat of a misnomer here. This is a clutch-less
system, intended for pure electronic control. The
mount head is locked in place by engaging the gears
with the worm drives. When engaged, the system
is locked and loaded for slewing. When dis-engaged,
it moves freely, without friction. To balance
the OTA, you dis-engage the gears. When balanced,
you re-engage them. Therefore, care must be taken
to prevent imbalance when the gears are dis-engaged.
Keeping a hand on the OTA while loading the counterweights
is important, and frankly, with the upcoming 50 lbs.
RCOS scope, I'm sure that two people will be required
to perform simple balancing of the OTA. That
said, some type of lock on the axies would be perhaps
the only thing I might find the Bisque guys wishing
they'd have added; however, perhaps it will prove to
be an insignificant concern.
Firing it Up!
Although I was inside
the house, I wanted to see how well the mount worked
with the included THESKY 6 Professional control software.
Of course, I already owned this software myself,
but the Paramount is designed to make better use of
this software than my previous mounts and I wanted to
test those capabilities. I also
wanted to make sure there were no bugs in the software
or any difficulties with setting up the USB driver for
the mount, not to mention the driver for the control system. After
inserting the supplied Paramount ME system disk in the CD-ROM
drive of my laptop computer, I installed the most recent
THESKY 6 update (.27 at this release) and the aforementioned drivers
the slightest hiccup. Then, I plugged the supplied
15 ft. USB cable into the laptop and powered up the
mount. The colored LEDs on the back of the control
panel came to life with a pattern of flashes that I
have yet to completely understand, but after a few seconds,
they gave me a solid-blue color, indicating that the
mount is ready to be "homed" with the software.
After setting my THESKY
6 software for the Paramount ME and the appropriate
COM port, I linked to the mount...success! The
software immediately asked me if I wanted to "home"
my mount. I gave it my permission to do so. "Homing"
the mount is something that must be done so the mount
knows where it is located. Once homed to its starting
position, polar-aligned, and programmed with the exact
time and date (done transparently through THESKY 6), the
mount immediately knows where it is. To test this,
I chose Vega in the software and selected "slew."
The mount moved to where Vega would be if I could
see it during the day...and when I say it "moved,"
I mean, it scooted! This mount runs on 48
volts DC, which is another reason it's not the first
choice for a portable, field setup, unless you just
love carrying 4 huge 12v batteries around all the time.
But this power is put into good use with Paramount.
The top slewing speed in the software suggests
512x sidereal rate. Whether that is what I was
seeing is anybody's guess, but I do know that it made
the move to Vega faster than my old Meade LX200, and
was at least three times as fast as the Tak NJP.
Once the scope found
Vega, I synced to this star, not really moving the controller
around since, afterall, the transparency was quite poor
inside my livingroom. Then, I pretended I was
outside and chose objects in the software for the scope
to slew towards. I played with the mounts software
settings in THESKY 6: I played with the slew rates,
looked at the PEC graphs and T-point interface, tracked
on a satellite, I set a "park" position for
the mount...play, play, play!
Of course, this was the
limit to my play at this time. What else can you
do indoors? Once I get the
RCOS scope and get it outside, I'll put the mount to
the test, including it's tracking and guiding ability.
Hopefully, the next new moon will signal that
the REAL play time is about to begin. I'll report
on additional discoveries at that time.
1.15.05 - Green
Laser Pointers: A call to common sense...
Recently, one person in the Northeast
was arrested for pointing his new green laser pointer
(GLP) at a plane while on approach at an international
airport. Because of the heightened security surrounding
the possible usage of GLPs by terrorists, such arrests
will likely become common place if lasers are misused,
whether intentionally or by accident.
Of course, it was no accident in the
case of the aforementioned incident. After the arrest,
the alleged airplane “flasher” first gave the excuse
that he was just showing the stars to his daughter.
Now, those who have GLPs know that
it’s not an easy thing to hit a target at the farthest
range of the laser, which is normally between 5000 to
10,000 feet for the typical 5mw GLP. Of course, for
the astronomer, the GLP finds its value as a teaching
tool to show others objects in the night sky. However,
when the person gets arrested for hitting a plane AS
IT’S LANDING and then says he was just showing his daughter
the stars, well...kinda gives astronomers a bad rap!
There have been other reports by airplane
pilots being flashed while behind the controls of aircraft
while at altitude, but I'll bet you serious cash that
all these events happened the first time somebody took
their new GLP outdoors. Heck, I’ll admit it! The
Azle, TX, watertower looked pretty cool when I nailed
it from my home on “first light” night with the laser!
It's human nature to try to paint
everything that moves with it, until of course common
sense kicks in.
Lasers can be "improved”
from their normal 5mw outputs and purchased from certain
vendors. Mine is 19mw and it’s clearly a nice, bright
laser. Because public observing and teaching the sky
is so important to me, it's the greatest teaching tool
I have. But still, although the laser is brighter
than normal, people would have a difficult time seeing
it unless they were in close proximity.
But ALL of us can see a mag -2 plane
blinking across the night sky, and if we can't, then
perhaps astronomy isn't the best hobby for us! However,
it doesn't take much effort to make sure that we don't
intentionally aim at an airplane. Chances are almost
zilch that pilots will get hit by laser fire if our
GLPs are used responsibly. Heck, you'd have to be darn
good to hit such a moving target on purpose. But let’s
not be careless with our laser tools!
Be courteous of others, especially
those we are observing with who might have a problem
with them. Our eyes are important to us! So, this is
a call for the responsible use of GLPs. If they get
banned, let it be because of real terrorists or certain
stupid idiots who live by airports, not because of astronomers.
1.1.05 - The
Year in Review...
If 2005 is as good as 2004 was, I'll be
extremely happy. Though 2004 was dominated by some rather poor weather for me, I
managed to accomplish some real growth in the hobby.
But I also enjoyed some special moments.
Here are my 10
highlights, in no particular order:
- The Continued Development of the
Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences
Acquisition of the Comanche Springs campus and lending input to its development.
See www.3rf.org for more details.
- New Equipment Acquisitions
- The SBIG
STL-6303E and SBIG STL-11000, along with the Tak NJP mount, really opened up the
skies for me.
- Best Deep-Sky Photo at TSP 2004
- This was the surprise
of the year when I won this award at the Texas Star Party for my North America
and Pelican shot.
- Major Star Parties - I attended the Texas Star Party
for my third straight year and the Eldorado Star Party for the first time.
Always great being able to spend time with my friends from around the country.
- The Silver Twinkie - Getting my 1972 Airstream Travel Trailer has made
travelling to the dark skies much more fun!
- The AIC in San Jose - In
early November, I spent three days with some of the world's best imagers at the
Advanced Imaging Conference in San Jose, CA. Some of the things I learned there
really helped me to take my image processing to a new level.
11th, Under the Stars - One of the most memorable nights that I've had under the
stars was shared with my friends Jeff Barton, Russell Horn, and Larry Smith.
Some of the best seeing of the year yields some of the best refractor views I've
ever had of Saturn, as well as some good raw data for the Pleiades shot I'm work
on. Jeff and I also clearly observed Canopus on the southern horizon, the second
brightest star in the sky but normally so far south that we can't catch it...it
was bright this night. Jeff and I also witnessed the NOSS triplet satellites for
the first time...freaky, freaky, freaky...something I'll never forget. Of
course, all these events were surrounded by an earlier than expected and
prolific show from the Geminids, including many earth-gazers. We were seeing
meteors at a rate of 3 to 5 per minute, a pace which continued until the
shower's peak two days later.
- Becoming "Prime Focus" Editor
- I took
over as editor/writer of the "Fort Worth Astronomical Society newsletter called
- Becoming a Moderator at A.com
- I normally don't care
for such honors, but it was very nice to be asked to help moderate that forum, a
place that I've been involved with since 2000.
- Our Dark Skies -
Finally, a place to hang out with my extended astronomy family! This
is a great Internet forum environment. Go
and check it out for yourself!
The only way 2005 could be better
is to have more nights under the stars!!!
12.30.04 - Comet
Machholz in January...
When the prolific North American comet
hunter Donald Machholz awoke in the early morning hours
of August 27, 2004, he likely didn’t realize that he’d
find his 10th comet. But arising in the far south, in
the constellation of Eridanus, Machholz discovered an
11th-magnitude interloper with his 6” newtonian.
In an age when seemingly every comet
is found by sky surveys like LINEAR and NEAT, this one
was christened Comet Machholz, or C/2004 Q2 in “comet
2004 was a nice year for comets. NEAT
Q4 and LINEAR T7 were magnitude 5 treats during the
month of May, and Comet Bradfield F4 surprised everybody
by brightening up rather quickly at about the same time
of the year. Unfortunately, none of those comets were
in a prime position for northern hemisphere observers
when they reached perihelion.
This will not be so with Machholz
Q2! Already a naked eye beauty at magnitude 4
to begin the New Year, Comet Machholz will rise high
in the sky, shining 2 arc degrees from the Pleiades
on January 7th. Just look straight up!
It reaches perihelion on January 24th,
remaining magnitude 4, having moved rapidly through
Perseus toward the Double Cluster. Machholz will have
some legs too, remaining mag 6 by the time of its rendezvous
with the North Star in March.
This comet doesn’t have a large tail,
perhaps 5 arc degrees, but its bright coma assures many
great observations over the next few months.
- The Passing of a Hero...
Some days just aren't as enjoyable as others, and things like
astronomy aren't a good recompense.
My grandmother ("Me-ma"), Gertie Ansley, passed away today at
4:40 PM. She was 96 years of age. All the family is doing well as this was
somewhat expected, though your thoughts and prayers are always coveted.
Finalization of the arrangements are pending at the moment; however, the
funeral will likely be held at Ash Creek Baptist Church, in Azle, Texas, on
either Monday or Tuesday.
She was a remarkable woman...always a hero to
11.10.04 - Rubbing
elbows with the big-wigs!
I had the great fortune to attend
the Advanced Imaging Conference on November 6-7, 2004.
The conference was sponsored by industry giants SBIG,
RCOS Optical, and Software Bisque. Of the 150 participants,
many of whom, like me, flew across the country to arrive
in San Jose, California, for the event, most all of
them are serious about astroimaging.
And I mean serious!
At one point of the event, John
Smith, imager extraordinaire and RCOS representative
asked the question, “How many of you guys use Ritchey-Chretien
scopes as your primary imaging platform.” By a
show of hands, easily onehalf the room answered in the
Did I say these people are serious!?!
More than that, the vast majority
of imagers who attended the conference— which included
luminaries such as Tony Hallas, Russell Croman, John
Gleason, Steve Mandell, and Brian Lula—use large chip,
astronomical CCD cameras, mostly from SBIG, but many
others from FLI and Starlight Xpress. As many of you
know, these large array CCD cameras are not cheap, especially
those that are the size of 35mm film negatives or those
that are back-lighted.
Serious? How about obsessed?!?
The conference was indeed a great
educational time, where we all learned just a bit more
about how to acquire and process astronomical images.
Rubbing elbows with such great photographers and astronomers
was quite a pleasure. But more than that, it tells me
how far the hobby has come. For the first time in history,
amateur astronomers have access to some serious astronomical
tools, not just for imaging, but for conducting serious
science. Because of this, the lines between professional
and amateur astronomy are slowing blurring. Whereas
supernova searchs, photometry, astrometry, variable
star charting, and asteroid observations were once the
domain of professional observatories, that’s not the
case now. Amateurs have taken these tasks to heart with
their advanced equipment, thus allowing the pros to
study and contemplate more of the cosmological inquiries
that are, and have always been, important to mankind.
So, where does that leave the hobbyist,
the person who as the meager 8” dobsonian, a few eyepieces,
and a star chart? It leaves you right where you have
always been, right at the place of leisurely observations
of your night skies. Nothing’s changed for you, except
now you have the capacity of bigger dreams!
10.15.04 - October
is an observer's heaven!
My favorite time of the year? You
guessed it...right now!
October features a perfect opportunity
to catch the widest majority of everyone’s favorite
objects. Early in the evening, when the daylight gives
way to longer nights, the summer Milky Way is straight
overhead, showing its splendor with a plethora of nebulae
and star clusters from Cygnus down to Sagittarius. Around
midnight, the Milky Way begins to twist overhead, pivoting
on its Cassiopeia axis to allow the winter Milky Way
to take prominence. At first, Perseus and the great
square of Pegasus are on display, but they slowly give
way to Orion, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Major. The rise
of the Pleiades at this time signals that all is well
in the heavens! By late in the morning, Orion is perfectly
positioned across the sky’s meridian.
Some of my favorites during this time?
How about the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, at the zenith?
Does that sound good? Or perhaps M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy?
Other favorites have to be the “ET”
cluster, NGC 457, and the excellent open cluster, NGC
7789, in Cassiopeia; the California Nebula, NGC 1499,
in Perseus; the Crab Nebula, M1, in Taurus; the great
M42 nebula, the Running man, and the Flame in Orion;
M44, the Beehive Cluster, in Cancer; and M35 in Gemini.
Make sure to stay up late for Saturn,
making it’s return to prominence in the night sky...and
Venus, the morning star, as well. But perhaps
my favorite object during this time follows the
sky right behind the bright star Fomalhaut in the southern
sky. This would be the little known, yet awesome galaxy,
NGC 253 in Sculptor. Known as the “Great Sculptor Galaxy,”
this object is a full 30 arc minutes long (about the
width of our full moon) and it plenty wide enough to
see the detail in its spiral structure. What is so wonderful
about this galaxy is that its brightness is widely scattered
across its entire surface, allowing for easily caught
details over the entire disk. For some people, the structure
is reminiscent of the blades of a food processor!
To make this month even better is
the last total Lunar eclipse until 2007. Be sure to
find a good, unobstructed view on October 27th as the
moon turns a bloody red hue because of the earth’s shadow
falling over the moon’s surface.
7.15.04 - The
best galaxy of all...
When people find out that I enjoy
observing galaxies, they inevitably ask me what galaxy
I favor the most. Well, that’s like almost like choosing
a favorite child, at least for some people (seeing as
I don’t have any kids). There are so many great ones
from which to choose. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is
just huge, and if you stay out late enough on these
summer nights, you should be able to catch a really
good view of this giant. It’s a great galaxy, a bit
better to photograph than to observe in my opinion,
but it’s not my favorite galaxy.
M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is another
great one, and it too rises near the morning twilight
during the summer months. But it’s not my favorite.
Of course, there are the Ursa Major
pair of M81 and M82. Wonderful sights through just about
any scope with respectably dark skies. I love viewing
these galaxies, but neither are my favorites.
Any discussion of favorite galaxies
could not be conducted without bringing up M51, the
Whirlpool Galaxy. For many people, this one is their
favorite galaxy. For me, it’s wonderful...but you might
ave guessed by now that it is NOT my favorite galaxy.
How about the Magellanic Clouds?
Well, if I ever see them during my lifetime, I might
add them to my list. Unfortunately, many of us northern
hemisphere folks have the same thoughts and wishes.
One of my favorites, M104 or the Sombrero
Galaxy, is a great springtime sight. But it’s not my
favorite galaxy. Same goes for the tremendously
underrated and seldom talked about Sculptor Galaxy,
So, what is my favorite galaxy? Look
up this month in some dark skies and you’ll see it.
Nothing bigger; nothing better. July is the month of
the Milky Way—yes, it’s a galaxy! It is perfectly overhead
in the early hours of night and is the highlight of
the summer. While there are so many other great galaxies
to observe, the very best is our own! Enjoy it
5.10.04 - Comet
Comet NEAT Q4/2001 has
been putting on a pretty good show over the last week.
I've tried to take pictures of this comet each
night as it has risen higher and higher in our skies.
Of course the weather has a lot to say about that!
As I take images of this
comet, be sure to check out the NEAT
Q4/2001 page as the comet continues to play itself
The comet is about as
bright as expected, though the tail doesn't seem to
be as visible and extended as we'd hope. Nevermind
that, it's still a nice visitor to our skies. I'll
try to keep up with it throughout the year as it stays
in northern skies.
5.1.04 - The
Month of Comets!
An unexpected visitor made an appearance in the morning skies in late April. The recently discovered Comet Bradfield brightened, then dimmed almost as fast as it came. It did provide some nice views for those who got up early enough to see it. Its long, beautiful tail showed itself well in long exposure photographs. Other than that, chances are likely you missed it!
But that would have just been a bonus. After all, you already knew that two of the brightest comets since Hale-Bopp in 1997 will become visible to Texans this May. A third bright comet this month would almost be too much to ask for!
Comet LINEAR T7 gave us a sneak preview last December prior to getting lost to southern skies. Though only magnitude 8 at that time, it gave viewers and picture-takers a nice composition, scaring M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy on its way towards the sun. It makes its reappearance on southern horizon toward the end of the month, just in time for us to catch it at its brightest, around magnitude 1. It should be quite impressive, obviously a naked eye object with a tail nearing 20 angular degrees in the sky. As the month ends, LINEAR T7 will begin to dim as it makes its way across Canis Major, passing near M46 and M47 on the 24th, and jumping into Hydra by the end of the month, where it will still shine at an impressive magnitude 3.
By mid-June, the comet should be around magnitude 5, ending the month at approximately magnitude 7, where it will slow down, with reference to the stars, in Sextans and remain there during July when it the western horizon begins to catch back up to it.
Comet NEAT Q4 has been giving southern hemisphere observers quite a show during April. Beginning in May, it will be our turn. Like LINEAR T7, It too will begin to show itself to us in the area of Canis Major. Despite being near its peak of magnitude 1, it will be rather faint at first, requiring optical aid. It should be visible around May 4th very low on the horizon and fighting a near full moon. Use binoculars or a small scope and look near the star Wezen, in the center of Canis Major. By May 8th, it will remain a 1st magnitude comet, climbing high enough in the sky to be visible to the naked eye. It too will show off a tail nearing a length of 20 arc degrees.
At this point, NEAT Q4 will be speeding rapidly across the sky at a rate of around 5 arc degrees per day. By the 10th, it will pass just east of Procyon and within 4 days it will already be passing right near M44, the Beehive Cluster. Get out your cameras, as this should be an excellent photo opportunity...a magnitude 1.5 NEAT Q4 with a magnitude 3.1 open cluster in the same field of view! A week later it will cross into the eastern portion of Lynx, heading north, where it will still shine at around magnitude 2.5. It slows down rapidly at this point and by May 31st it will approach the Big Dipper in Ursa Major still showing itself as a 3rd magnitude comet.
It stays in Ursa Major for the entire month of June, fading away gradually. It should be magnitude 5.5 by the end of June. One month later, NEAT Q4 will actually spin its way toward the east, finding itself within the bowl of the Dipper. At that point, it will still be a 7th magnitude comet. It will stay in that area for the rest of the summer, remaining a telescopic object for most of the rest of the year.
Remember that binoculars and small scopes will usually provide the best views of such comets. You’ll also have plenty of opportunities to photograph them. Try exposures of 30 seconds or less when using a tripod. 35mm SLRs with high-speed film or digital cameras with high ISO settings should provide some great wide field shots. If you have a tracking mount, you can go longer, either guiding on the background stars or the comet itself, for differing looks.
One more thing. Comet Bradfield is still in the morning sky near M31 during the morning hours for much of May, but you’ll need a scope! So I guess there’s still a chance to catch 3 comets this month!
4.30.04 - Comets...Nice
Ah, the glories of spring! The cycle of life begins anew. Animals pop out from their holes. The grass needs to be mowed. The smells (and allergens) fill the air. Baseball season signals an upcoming summer.
So...anybody else as frustrated as me? Three new moons have passed, one aligning itself perfectly with my spring vacation, and I’ve managed only 1 1/2 days of quality “star time.”
Yes, I know, we need the rain… blah… blah…blah...Spring sucks!
Or is it just my LUCK?
Allow me to share with you my recent travails when it comes to astronomy “events.” Last year, I was 0 for 2 when it came to eclipses and 0 for 2 when it came to Meteor showers (those that I cared to see). Mercury transit of the sun? Figittaboudit!
This year, a year of great astronomical happenings, I’ve already been clouded out of a Messier Marathon and a Copperbreaks’ StarWalk. At least we’ve got an upcoming Venus transit, a near once in a life-time experience...oh wait...it’s not visible from here anyway. At least we’ve got the Venus Transit of 2012 in which to look forward… anybody want to pay 2 to 1 odds that’s I’ll get to see that one?
That’s the problem with single night astronomy “events”… the weather always has its say. But it’s not just the weather either. The more money you spend on the hobby, the more variables come into play...the more opportunities for an equipment breakdown, or for leaving a necessary cable or adapter at home….another chance to miss out entirely!
So, as amateur astronomers, observers, and astrophotographers, we always have to temper our expectations with the realistic possibility that things might not work out the way we’d like. We have to learn to deal with things like this. Or maybe I can take solace in my bad luck:
“Jay, did you see the solar eclipse?”
“No, I missed it, as usual...woohoo!”
Perhaps this is why I love COMETS so much. They don’t tease you with a single night’s window. They hang in the skies just begging to be seen, often for months on end, before they finally fall prey to the inertia of their orbits.
This month of May holds some special treats for us. Three bright comets are in the sky as we speak. At the time you receive this issue, one of these is visible with binoculars in our morning skies, though it’s fading fast. Two others will be seen easily by the naked eye towards the end of the month...just keep your eye on the West and the South, in the early evening skies.
It’s a rare event...I doubt even I could miss it!
4.12.04 - A
new match for the CGE mount...
When I originally purchased my Celestron
CGE mount, I didn't bother to get an OTA with it. I
already had the Tak FSQ-106 and I even had the OTA from
my 10" LX-200 that I could use if I needed the
extra focal length.
Well, I've never been too happy about
the optics of the LX200; not that they are bad...they
just don't seem to be on par with some of the other
SCTs I've looked through. I'm also tired of seeing
my LX200 completely disassembled. I need to put
it back together so that I can perhaps sell it, or at
least use it visually.
But more than anything, I just wanted
to have an OTA that looked good on the CGE. I
mean really, does a BLUE tubes Meade SCT really belong
atop a BLACK and ORANGE Celestron mount?
Seems like a good enough reason as
any to get a new scope!
So, I'd like to announce that I've
just made a deal on an ALMOST new Celestron 11"
SCT, complete with carbon fiber tube and XLT
Actually, I made the purchase because
I need an optically good, long focal length instrument...and
I didn't have the money to put down on a Ritchey-Chretien!
I'll give a report on its performance
soon. More than that, I hope to show off some
new images taken with it.
3.17.04 - Happy
Anniversary to Allaboutastro.com!!!
The first upload to this website was
made exactly one year ago today. I just wanted
to take this opportunity to thank the many people who
have stopped by over the last year to see what's goin'
This next year promises to be quite
prolific for this site. I will have the opportunity
to take many, many more photographs. My astrophotography
skills have slowly improved and I'm using some pretty
nice equipment on a regular basis. The only real
problem will be trying to maintain this site with so
many additions. I hope to continue adding
to the Articles page as well. Special thanks to
those who read the articles and tell others about their
3.08.04 - Blooming
vs. Anti-Blooming article...
I added a short article discussing
the basics of CCD "blooming." If "to
bloom or not to bloom" is your question, then you
might find your answer <here>.
Or, you can go directly to the Articles page with the navigation
buttons at the top of this page.
3.05.04 - Digital
SLR and astro CCD comparison...
Because I have both types of cameras,
I thought I'd give a comparison of the performance of
both types of cameras for astroimaging. Many people
are curious as to whether or not the now inexpensive
SLRs (relatively speaking) can compete with the much
more expensive astronomical CCDs used by the best amateur
astrophotographers. Find your answer <here>
or go directly to the Articles page with the navigation
buttons at the top of this page.
2.14.04 - Something
you don't see every day...
Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate
for stargazing, but when it's bad, hopefully it's pretty!
I just wanted to show an image of a rarity in
North Texas...2 inches of snow! Pictured below
is Ballauer Observatory under a bunch of strange white
2.03.04 - Canon
Digital Rebel first light images...
I finally got my copy of Images Plus
1.72. This excellent software is completely integrated
image processing package, including the ability to acquire
images with digital SLRs. I was waiting for this
software prior to combining the many RGB images I took
on January 19th, "first light" with the new
Canon Digital Rebel (300D). I'll discuss the software
in detail at another time, but for now you should know
that there is a LOT to like about it, especially the
DVD tutorials that come with it. In the meantime,
go to www.mlunsold.com
for more information and purchasing information.
I learned a couple of things while
processing the M42 and M45 images (link to them from
<here>). First, I didn't have the camera
set for RAW mode when I took the shots. Instead, it was set to Large JPG. The
resolution is full, but the amount of information is substantially decreased,
from ~7mb to ~2.9mb. Second, I learned that dark frame reduction works much
better if you take a master set of darks instead of a single dark, a method I am
accustomed to using with the ST7e. The result was that noise was much stronger
than I wanted. So, I went ahead and left the M42 image uncalibrated (I didn't
subtract any dark frames). The M45 image contains was indeed calibrated,
but I had to use Photoshop CS to remove some of the
After using Images Plus for my stacking and
combining, I used Photoshop for the rest of the images. I used the excellent
noise reduction software for final touch-up on the M45
the aforementioned issues, I'm pretty pleased with the images. I wish I had taken
many more images to add to the stack on both images, but I'll take it! I think these
"first light" shots go a long way to show that the Canon
Digital Rebel is a killer camera for the price.
1.19.04 - Preview
images with the new Canon Digital Rebel (300D)
I had near perfect sky
conditions last night and mag 4 zenith skies ( ZLM).
So equipped with my new T-mount and cable release
for the Canon Digital Rebel, I decided to take some
first light shots using the Tak 106, Celestron CGE mount,
AP 80/900mm guidescope, and the ST-7 as an autoguider.
Proper focus took a while,
and I found that it was best to just take short images,
download them to the PC, and view them while making
small adjustments in between. The eyefinder gives a
close enough focus to make this method quite easy, though
it took me a while to figure this out last night. I
did my focusing on M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, but it
dropped behind the trees before I had a chance to do
anything good with it.
The remainder of the
evening was spent imaging M45 and the M42 region, in
that order. I took eight 5 minute exposures of
M45 and eighteen 5 minute exposures of the M42 area.
All exposures were set for ISO 800. I also
discovered that stacking so many RGB images is a very
difficult and time consuming process, and I might have
to look into purchasing a piece of software called Images
Plus to make my life easier...this software is designed
specifically for digital SLRs.
Because it may take some
time to process the complete results, I decided to post
a single 5 minute exposure of each object. I wanted
to give you an idea of the capabilities of this camera
in such a short exposure...and this is without an kind
of modification to the IR filter.
The only processing done
on these shots is a levels adjustment to give the correct
range of brightness values...that's it...no noise reduction...no
nothing! I then resized them and saved to a smaller
file for display here.
- The Pleiades - single 5 minute exposure
Obviously I didn't spend
too much time framing these images in any particular
way, but I think the camera shows itself well.
- The Sword Area - single 5 minute
I think these go a long
way to show that the camera can produce some serious
shots! At ISO 800, the 5 minute dark frames do
show quite a bit of glow from the right side of the
chip caused by internal heat. The battery
didn't give out until the after the 10th exposure of
M42, and that was in 35F temperatures and beginning
with a 75% charge. So, that's between 90 - 120
minutes of open shutter time on a single charge...not
bad! Once the battery ran down, I placed the battery
on the charger for 45 minutes until it gave a 75% charge
and then I took the remaining 8 exposures of M42, as
well as a single dark frame.
I'll post the complete
images when I can do the processing correctly, but in
the meantime I'll conclude with this single remark:
FILM IS DEAD!
1.13.04 - New
Seems like I get something new every month, so this month I
The Canon 300D Digital Rebel...WOOHOO!
I can tell you
already that I like this camera! It came with the 18-55mm EF-S lens, battery,
cables and software. I took a picture of...my CAT!
I outputted the file
to computer and blew up the 2.86 mb JPG (fine mode) using the zoom function in
Photoshop. I made my cat's eye as big as the computer screen without
pixellation! And that's not even using the RAW mode that this camera offers,
which is the full 6.3 megapixels without any compression or data lost. That
outputs a 7mb file.
Images are saved on the camera with a compact flash
card, which the camera didn't come with. Luckily, I had a 256mb laying around
from my old, broken HP Jornada (PDAs don't get along well with my BUTT). I'll be
able to get around 30 images at full data resolution with this camera on that
256mb CF. Very nice!
There are just too many features to list with this
digital SLR. But I like the PC software that allows you to remote control the
camera. You can set up a series of timed exposures up to 30 seconds each.
Unfortunately, bulb mode will not work in this setting. Likewise, as with any
SLR, you need a cable release to give you bulb exposures. That means you must
purchase the optional Remote Switch RS-60E3. This way, you can lock down the
shutter for exposure as long as you want.
I also need an EOS T-Mount so
I can hook the camera to my scopes. I'll have to find one tomorrow, or else have
one sent to me online, along with the Remote Switch. Thus, I can't give you a
preliminary test right now.
I will say that I took a test dark frame with
the camera at 30 seconds and 800 ISO. Didn't see a flaw on the chip nor a
glimpse of a hot pixel...impressive.
I'm intrigued with the removal of
the IR filter covering the chip. I'd love for a mod to get posted on the
Internet for safe removal of this filter. The difference without it on
astrophotos is said to be incredible. I know that Hutech will be offering a
modified version of this camera (www.hutech.com), but since I already have the
camera I'd like to have it done. It has been said that terrestrial work can
still be done after the modification with a screw-on UV-IR filter (which I
already have), but the auto-focus isn't always accurate. Nevertheless, I can see
me keeping this camera as is for terrestrial work and then getting another one
from Hutech with the modification.
Anyway, this is quite an
extraordinary camera for the price ($999.99). It also means that my film days
are most likely over. I guess I need to sell all my Nikon F2 stuff!
soon post a more thorough review of the camera for astrophotography, hopefully
1.09.04 - New
light pollution article posted...
I posted a new article on how CCDs differ from film where
light pollution is concerned. In the event that you
wondered how CCDs work their magic, this article will
explain it simply. Just go to the Articles page
and look through the Astrophotography questions. Or,
just click <here>
to go there directly.
the way, if you haven't already found the Universal
Star Gazers forum, I'd highly suggest hopping over there
and joining. There is no better way to learn the
hobby than to be in such a forum...and this one is the
best. You can get there from my AstroLinks page
or by clicking <here>.
1.07.04 - The Year
Let's take the time to celebrate 2003. It was a great
year. Here's a quick rundown of my astronomical
March: Debut of my website. Messier marathon attempted but
skies not dark enough early on (found 26 of the 30 possible before I decided it
was too cold).
April: Purchased 300mm Nikkor f/2.8 ED lens. Learned that
my favorite film, RG 400 Select, would be "improved." Attended my second Texas
Star Party. Finally took some astropix that I'm really proud of.
Purchased SBIG ST-7e CCD camera. Added a Clear Sky Clock for the Ballauer
Observatory. Clouded out for the year's first lunar eclipse...drats! Oh
well, got another one in November.
June: Did a bearing replacement and DEC fix on my LX200.
Purchased dream scope number one, the Tak FSQ-106, and MaxIm 3.0 CCD software.
Won the first of two-in-a-row monthly raffles at FWAS meetings.
Hosted the first All About Astro Photography contest, won by DanO with a
beautiful shot of fireworks. Deciding my LX-200 wouldn't suit my
astrophotography aims, especially with the Tak riding piggyback, so I started my
search for another mount.
August: Texas temperatures hit 109 degrees.
Mars opposition gives me a chance to try my hand at webcam imaging, which meant
that I HAD to buy a 4x TV Powermate.
September: Met fellow forumites and
Internet friends Jeff Barton and David Ryle for the first time at Copperbreaks
State Park Star Walk, which began my association with an endeavor that I plan to
make a routine part of my life over the near future.
over at Land, Sea, and Sky Texas Nautical Repair in Houston during a business
trip. Spent some money on a new Tak finderscope, adapters, and a new Garmin GPS
(I love this thing).
November: 0 for 2 on lunar eclipses
this year after being clouded out once again...double
drats. Got a steal on a new Celestron CGE mount.
Redesigned the webpage to a new look. Found the FSG forums!
Struggled with getting the mount working for guided astrophotography. Persevered
enough to produce some of the best CCD work I've ever done by year's end.
The year ended with great hope and excitement for the future. My
hope is that 2004 is more enjoyable and productive for everyone.
1.05.04 - Happy
New Year from All About Astro.com
It has been a great 2003, but it's over! I would like
to take the opportunity to wish all my family, friends,
and astro lovers my best wishes for the new year. For
me, 2004 promises to be quite prolific. The number
and quality of my images are certain to rise, as is
the number of events that I attend. I will be
a regular fixture at the Copperbreaks StarWalks during
the 2004 season. I'm also pre-registered for yet
another Texas Star Party, coming in mid-May. There
are many items on my wish list, such as a larger CCD
camera, and perhaps 2004 will be the year!
been a terrific holiday season for me, having two weeks
of vacation time. That allowed me to spend 6 quality
nights under the stars with the Celestron CGE mount
and Tak 106. I fixed many problems (due mostly
to the young mount exhibiting some growing pains).
This, coupled with the acquisition of the new
CFW-8a color filter wheel, allowed me to take some of
my best ever CCD images. Be sure to look through
the Gallery pages as I've posted some images that didn't
make my front page. The Messier list and Images
by Date list are new features for All About Astro.com.
Make sure you look through them often so that
you don't miss any images. Likewise, even though
there are many "blanks" in the Messier list,
stay tuned as I hope to fill in those blanks during
the 2004 season. My hope is to have some decent images
of all Messier objects sooner rather than later, at
which point I'll slowly replace the older images with
images of better quality. It takes time and experience,
but I'm getting there. CCDs are wonderful things!
12.16.03 - New
article on Tri-color Imaging posted...
I know that there is a lot of confusion among beginners,
and even veterans, regarding CCD imaging and tri-color.
I've written an article on the subject in the event
you'd like to understand a little more about how astronomical
CCDs work and why you need filters to assemble color
images. Yes, that's correct...without filters
these camera produce black and white images, much like
the current images posted on this site's Home page.
Just click <here>
to go straight to the article -or- click the navigation
bar at the top of this page to get to the Articles Page
where you can read much more than just this article.
Enjoy and feel free to email me at
if you have questions.
12.15.03 - A
New Look for All About Astro.com!!!
I had gotten a little tired of the look of these pages,
so I decided to do a slight redesign. Not a whole
lot has changed from the old format as far as content
is concerned, but I do think you'll like the new look.
The following changes have been made:
- Change of color scheme and navigation
buttons. All pages now have a more uniform
- Sub-headings at the top of each
page give a summary of what is on the page.
- Smaller fonts for a more crisp
look; more useable for smaller screen resolutions.
- Unified Gallery pages with sub-pages.
Take the new look for a spin and let
me know what you think by emailing me at email@example.com
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