Sunday, 8 December 2019

Reaping the Observatory Rewards

The first images are in...

Some weeks after the arrival of the new observatory, I've eventually got some quality imaging time in and some results to show.  As well as first light in the observatory, I have also had first light with a new filter.  I purchased the Altair Quadband OSC filter back in September, and the recent flurry of clear evenings has given me the ideal chance to try it out.
Already, the benefits of having the observatory are amazing.  I am now up and imaging from the comfort of my own living room within 15 minutes.  I can't complain about that at all.  I'm also looking forward to seeing how the new quadband filter performs.  According to the product description, it should allow me to image targets during period of bright moonlight, opening up the number of opportunities for me to roll of the roof.

The geeky details.

For those of you with such an interest, this is the kit list used for these images.
  • Altair Hypercam 183c v1 OSC
  • Altair Quadband Filter
  • Sharpcap 3.2
  • Starwave 80ED-R scope
  • SkyWatcher EQ6-R mount
  • PixInsight 1.8
  • GIMP 2.10.6

First Light and M33

It had been quite a while since my last imaging session.  I think it might have been back in February.  So I wanted to pick a target that was familiar, and that I had imaged before.  I went with M33 which is sitting lovely and high in the night sky at the moment.  I'm quite pleased with this result given it has been so long since I had done any imaging or processing.  Very rusty, but not too bad!

58 stacked 3 minute exposures, plus dark and flat calibration frames give this 2 hour 54 minute exposure of M33.

Second Light and Melotte 15

I have always wanted a go at imaging The Heart Nebula.  This is often imaged using widefield techniques and equipment with it's near neighbour, The Sole Nebula.  The problem I have is that with my current imaging scope (the 80 ED-R), I just don't have a large enough field of view to capture either nebula in their entirety in a single frame.  I would need to create a mosaic of different images which would take quite a number of evenings to complete.  It wasn't until I started reading more about it, that I began to appreciate that the whole nebula is actually made up of several individually catalogued objects.  The Heart Nebula as a whole is catalogued as IC 1805.  To the edge of the nebula, an area known as The Fish Head Nebula is catalogued as IC 1795.  IC 1795 is a possible future target for me.  In the centre of the heart is an open cluster of stars which are thought to be the origin of the nebula.  It is catalogued as Melotte 15 and was my chosen target.

58 stacked 3 minute exposures, plus dark and flat calibration frames give this 2 hour 54 minute exposure of Melotte 15

Third Light and M32 - Andromeda

This third and final image was taken in a spur of the moment, short window of clear sky one evening after work.  It demonstrated yet again, the benefit of being able to just have all my rig set up and ready for us at a moments notice.  Andromeda is perhaps one of the most imaged targets in the northern hemisphere.  In my opinion, it is also really hard to get right.  It is so big, and so bright with so much detail to pick out that I have rarely seen an image of the galaxy that stands out against all the others.  I have always struggled to get any sorted of decent detail from it.  It this most recent attempt, I didn't really have time to research a new target, so decided to spend a couple of hours on it, complete with the new quadband filter.  After some quick processing, the result is OK, but again it reminded me how tricky it is to get this target right.  I definitely have much to learn with this particular target.

38 stacked 3 minute exposures, plus dark and flat calibration frames give this image of M31.
3 Imaging sessions down in my new abode and I can't wait for the next run of clear nights.  As I round off this post, the forecast is pretty rubbish for the foreseeable week so it's unlikely that I will have chance to roll the roof open again for a little while.  That's not to say I have nothing to do!  I've got some projects coming up which I will write about in the coming weeks.  
I have just ordered a number of steel pieces, so I can get to work on building my own pier.  As well as that, want to explore some new RGB processing techniques in PixInsight to help me get the best out of the new quadband filter.
Finally, with my recent reading up on The Heart Nebula, I would like to attempt imaging the Fish Head nebula as my next target.  All I need is the clear sky to do it.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Observatory Progress - Still Raining

Observatory Progress - Still Raining

Not strictly true, it's rained most of the time but certainly far from being clear in the evenings.  The observatory has been in almost one week, and slowly, I've been moving things in.  The goal will be to put as much of my astro kit in there as possible, but also leave plenty of room for my imaging kit to be left up.  After all, that's was the primary reason for getting it in the first place!
The plan in the coming months will be to design and build a permanent steel pier for the scope.  This will leave me plenty of room to move around the imaging rig.  But, for the interim, I have to set up all my kit on the tripod and best use of the room available as possible.

What's happened since the day of the installation?

The LED lighting went in straight away.  Ultimately, I was to run the obsy off grid, meaning that it will run entirely on battery and solar power.  That's a way off, possibly another year or so into the future, so for the time being, power is supplied by mains supply run via an extension lead.
Knowing that for the interim period, I will be running off mains, I have adapted the LED lighting which was originally modified to run of battery, back to run off mains.  Then, I attached a PDU bar to the wall that provides the multiple sockets I will need to run all the equipment.  It also means that when I run the extension lead to the obsy, I just plug the PDU into it, and everything has power straight away.
The basics of electricity sorted, I unpacked some of the imaging kit and set it up.  I needed to find out how much room I have inside the obsy with the kit set up.

The basic kit put together, this was the first time the mount had been powered up since February!
With the tripod set up accordingly, and the mount set up, I was able to get the height of the mount correct, making sure the scope doesn't touch the roof when the roof is closed, but also, the height of the pier that I will need to design.
My next objective was to get things set up to the point where should clear skies present themselves anytime soon, was to get everything set up to the point where I can start to use it.  There's a difference now though.  Now I don't have to take everything down at the end of each evening, I could start making things a little more permanent.  Years ago, I saw a thread on a forum where someone was trying to set up some cable management around their rig.  They achieved this by attaching a board to the legs of their tripod.  My idea when I finally get the pier is to have all the cable managed in a box mounted on the pier, so to have everything on a board attached to the tripod isn't too different.

The board attached to the tripod, with some very messy cable management.
On the board, I have mounted the NUC computer, the USB hub and another 4 gang lead.  What this picture does show is how much cabling is involved with the imaging rig.  As well as the kit in the picture, I have also mounted a monitor on the wall of the obsy to connect the NUC to.  Something really needed doing with those cables though!

Still not the prettiest, but definitely more organised that it was!

Finally, all the cables brought together in a single wiring loom, with a loop big enough to allow the telescope a complete range of movement without snagging or putting stress on any of the connections.
The last part of the weekends work was to sort out remote connectivity.  What I want to be able to do is to switch everything on in the observatory, and then monitor everything from indoors.  Internet connectivity out to the observatory off the home router is not particularly brilliant, frequently dropping out.  However, last year, I bought another wireless router with the intention of setting it up purely for wireless networking.  This router is not configured to connect to the internet.  I had already configured the router when I first bought it, so it was just a question of linking it up and switching it on.

Weekend over.

I got some major boxes ticked this weekend.  I'm now in a position to start using my kit with the weather starts to cooperate.  There's still loads to do in the observatory with more things to set up, shelves to fit, storage to make and a ton of other things.  With a busy week ahead, I'm not going to be able to do too much in the evenings, but I will chip away where I can.  I expect it might well end up being one of these things that's never finished!

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Upsetting the Weather Gods

Upsetting the Weather Gods

What a year it's been so far.  Very little astronomy, but lots of everything else.  In astronomy circles, there is a belief that whenever you buy a piece of astronomy equipment, you pay the price by having to deal with nights and nights of cloudy weather, before at last, the sky clears and allows you to use the new toy.
Since moving house earlier in the year, the imaging rig hasn't been out the box.  In fact, when I recently powered up the mount for the first time, the date I last used it appeared on the handset.  February 2019!  But now, it's time to unveil the result of the grand plan.
I spent August bank holiday doing a lot of digging and mixing.  

Yep, lots of digging and mixing.  That should let the cat out the bag.
Then I spent many more weeks waiting....
Then a bit of time on holiday....

See, I did go on holiday....
Finally, earlier this week, it arrived.  All on the back of one big trailer.  If simply buying a new filter, or new camera, or even a new scope results in days or weeks of crappy weather, then I can understand why the weather in our corner of Herefordshire has seen the worst flooding for over 20 years and a forecast with no sign of a clear sky for at least the next 2 weeks, after the arrival of the new purchase.

It's taking a bit of getting use to, seeing the new observatory at the bottom of the garden.
So, yes, blame me!  It's all my fault.  But I'll take the weather hit because the benefits of having this are going to be huge.  I've got lots of ideas on how I want it set up, and I've already made a start getting some basic lighting in and will soon be setting up my tripod, mount and scope which will help be gauge the next part of the project, a custom pier.

I'll post more developments as it all comes together, but I'm really excited to get all this up and running.  It's going to help me so much and in the long run will mean I can get out imaging more and more.
Until next time, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

AstroCamp 15 - Encouraging Others

I'm home!

Hello reader.  Thanks for stopping by.  I've arrived back home after another very successful camp, and unpacked in enough time to watch the rain hitting the window hard and to see the updated weather warnings being published for the coming 24 hours.  Good timing, one could say.
What's gone on and what might you have missed?  In this latest ritualistic blog post of AstroCamp, I want to record some memories of my own, and hopefully inspire others.
Once again, AstroCamp and the folks from Awesome Astronomy put together an absolute belter, and need I say, perhaps the best one for a couple of years in my opinion.  
I've put together my 5 best highlights of this camp, in no particular order.  If you were there, it would be great to hear yours too.

1 - A good old catch up.

I've forgotten how many AstroCamp events I have been to now.  Perhaps 8, 9?  10 maybe.  By now, I've come to know many familiar faces who have now come to be, what I to refer to as my Astro Family.  Such is the appeal, and the ethos of AstroCamp, it prides itself on being 'the friendly star party' and that means making new friends at every event.  I love my Astro Family.  I love catching up with people whom I don't always get to see from one camp to another, or even from one year to another.  It's the simple things that make the biggest impact, and what's simpler than sitting down with friends and chewing the fat?

2 - Sharing.

A huge part of the hobby, but in what context?  At AstroCamp 15, I had some amazing experiences.  I arrive at camp a day early, on the Friday.  The weather on the days running up to camp had been really good.  Warm, still and importantly, clear nights.  I had been out observing from home the night before camp, and knowing the forecast was due to be good for the Friday too, I couldn't wait to get to camp and set up.  It proved to be a night to remember, not only for me, but hopefully for a few others too.
As AstroCamp hadn't officially started, the site was still open to other groups and public.  As darkness fell, the dob was uncloaked and unleashed on the night sky.  This drew the attention of a few other people on the campsite, particularly a group of people on their Silver Duke of Edinburgh award.  What followed was a brilliant impromptu outreach astronomy session, during which my neighbours (Mark, Karen and Steve) and I combined forces to provide views and a tour of the night sky.  We were able to share peoples first views of a number of clusters in Hercules and Cassiopeia, and a number of nebulae including the Eastern Veil, Wester Veil, Ring and Dumbbell along with many other targets.  With the aid of some UHC filters, the nebulae really leapt out of the background sky.
The most special moment of the session though, was providing a young man called Aston, his first view of Saturn.  Saturn is visible in the early part of the evening at the moment, just after it gets dark.  It gradually falls below the horizon in the couple of hours after dark, so it was important that we could observe this target as soon as we could.  I will never forget Aston's reaction when he first saw the planet, with it's rings tilted.  I remembered my first view of Saturn being something very similar.  A truly special moment.

3 - Ride the bike.

Having turned up to camp a day early, I had a chance on Saturday to get off site, and do something a bit different.  Fellow AstroCamp attendee, Mark, brought his bike to camp with him, and we arranged to get up and going on Saturday morning.  After the brilliant weather on Friday night provided us with some superb observing opportunities, the favourable weather stayed with us all Saturday.
Cwmdu is positioned on the edge of the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons a short distance away.  On days of clear blue sky, there is no where better down this end of the world.  We chose a route which would take us away from Cwmdu, over into the next valley and past Llanthony Priory before climbing up to Gospel Pass.  This was the highest point of the ride, and provides awesome views of the Wye valley and the northern edges of the Black Mountains.  Our route continues down the side of the mountains into the famous town of Hay On Wye where it was time for a spot of lunch.
Continuing on from there, we made our way over to Talgarth before being detoured off our intended route which should have taken us back to Cwmdu.  Instead, we headed for the village of Llangors, enjoying further incredible views of Pen y Fan (the highest peak in South Wales) and Llangors lake.  Eventually, we made it to Bwlch before getting back into Cwmdu.  We had cycled around 47 miles in stunning weather, through mountain passes and country lanes.  It was an absolute pleasure to share it with Mark.

This is the view that greeted us when we topped out at the top of Gospel Pass.

Me, and "King Of The Mountain", Mark taking a quick selfie opportunity after dropping down out of Gospel Pass.

Looking across the northern spurs, gullies, ridges and plateaus of the Black Mountains.
Heading from Llangors to Bwlch, the view across Llangors lake with Pen Y Fan in the background.  Photo Credit: Mark Gatehouse.

4 - Winning and losing.

Always something that features on the highlights reel of camp is the quiz at The Spiral Arms, which is the pop up pub in the local village hall.  This year, I joined forces with Mark and Karen to form a team for the quiz.  Around 35 questions make up the astronomy themed quiz.  The prizes for the quiz are always quite serious, supported by Tring Astronomy.  In previous years, prizes have included gift vouchers, binoculars, eyepieces, telescopes and a whole list of other astronomy accessories.
We started hopeful, but faded fast!  As the questions flowed, so it became apparent once again that the gaps in my astro knowledge are about as vast as the universe.  With Mark and Karen chipping in with answers, providing most of the right ones to our sum total we remained hopeful, although mid table obscurity was always going to be the expected outcome.
At the end of the quiz, answer sheets are swapped and the answers are read out, papers marked.  When we got our sheet back, it turns out we hadn't even made it out of single figures!  It looked like even mid table obscurity was perhaps too big a target to hope for.  Starting from the top scorers, prizes started being handed out.

Quiz masters Ralph and Paul at The Spiral Arms.
This year, first prize of £250 of vouchers to be shared between members of the winning team were claimed, and second place prizes of a book and some accessories were also handed out.
So, why is this such a highlight of camp for me this year?  The whole ethos of AstroCamp is down to it's friendliness, the opportunity to learn, to share knowledge and to encourage.  Our score of not even double figures meant we were well out the running of either of the top prizes.  But there was one more prize to hand out.  The so called losers beginners prize.  This is usually something which will help get the recipient into astronomy.  The way in which this prize is handed out changes from year to year, so no one can intentionally try to win the prize.  This year, Ralph and Paul decided to do it on a draw basis, taking in all the answer sheets which scored less than 10.  Ours certainly fell within that category!  The prize was announced as being a rather nice SkyWatcher 127 GoTo telescope, and though being a very nice prize, for the winner to receive, before the draw was made Karen, Mark and myself all agreed that should our answer sheet be pulled out in the draw, that between us we had no realistic use for the prize.  Moments later, our answer sheet was pulled out, and we were announced as winners.  As agreed, we declined the prize, but after a quick discussion, elected to give to a young lad, Aston, who was attending his very first camp.  To say he was pleased with it was an understatement I think.  Aston, we all hope you enjoy using your new scope, and can't wait to see you using it under the dark and crystal clear skies of Cwmdu at future AstroCamps.

Aston getting to grips with his new telescope.  Photo credit - Steve Davey
Aston couldn't wait to open up his new telescope when he got back to the campsite, so with the help of Chris, they soon had it up and running, learning what each piece did, and how it all fitted together.  In my astronomy box, I have carried around some spare 8mm eyepieces for a couple of years.  I remembered that I had them with me in camp, so I decided to give one to Aston for use with his new scope.  I couldn't think of a better new home for it, and it was a pleasure to be able to give it to him.



5 - @pilliarscreatio does Apollo

Nope, it's not a spelling mistake.  That is the Twitter handle of Apollo authority, Gavin Price.  This Autumn, AstroCamp was held during a time where the moon phase allowed observers to observe the lunar surface if they wished.  Usually, the event is timed to run with as little moonlight as possible, typically over a New Moon period.  However, this year, AstroCamp had an Apollo theme running as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.  As part of the theme, the organisers from Awesome Astronomy invited Gavin Price to take centre stage at the Spiral Arms and give a talk on the Apollo missions.  Gavin has spent many years researching, learning, and via his very active Twitter account, educating followers of his findings about the Apollo missions.
I was fortunate enough to meet Gavin a couple of years ago at North West AstroFest.  From the outset, his enthusiasm for space travel and space history was obvious.  I started following him on Twitter, and reading his tweets.  With a current number of almost 47,000 tweets sent from his account, it gives you an idea of how much time he dedicates to the missions.
But this wasn't any old talk.  It was different for a number of reasons....


Gavin had gone a bit quiet, and his tweet explained why.  This was his first Apollo talk he'd ever given.  He started off by explaining that it was quite possibly the worst time to give a talk on the Apollo missions.  This year, the media have covered the Apollo missions in their own way to celebrate the 50th anniversary which has left people quite saturated with facts, figures, pictures and film clips of all aspects of the mission.  I must admit, I was feeling the same.  So many documentaries and articles have turned up, that I found it hard to get through them all.
However, Gavin's talk was different.  He put together a talk on based on little known facts about the missions, the people who worked on them and the effects the missions still have on space exploration to this day.
The talk was impressive.  If you get the change to listen to him at future events, please do.  When I used the word 'authority' to describe him, I don't do it lightly.  He knows his onions!  It was a pleasure to sit and listen.  Follow him on Twitter.  You'll see and learn something new every day.

Gavin taking the stage at AstroCamp.

Back Home...

They were my highlights of camp.  I've had a brilliant time yet again.  The title of this blog post is Encouraging Others.  Countless times through camp, it's something that has cropped up repeatedly.  From encouraging people to take their first views of Saturn, to encouraging people into the hobby and even clapping in fellow cyclists to the top of Gospel Pass encouraging them to keep pushing for just a few more seconds to get to the top.  I've also been encouraged.  Just having an event such as AstroCamp encourages me to get out under the sky, to make new friends and to catch up with old friends.  For me, that's what it's all about and I can't fault it.
My thanks go to all those who give up their spare time to organise camp.  I completely appreciate how much time and dedication it takes to get events off the ground, even just once.  But to do it twice a year, year after year on top of producing podcasts and everything else twice a month, it takes a special sort of dedication.  I'm very grateful.
So, as we welcome in the start of this astronomy season, I'm revived, rejuvenated and encouraged by what's around the corner.  I'm already looking forward to the next time I meet up with my astro family.  Hope to see you there.



Monday, 6 May 2019

Back To Basics

Back To Basics - First Time Out...

It looks like my blog posts are a bit like the proverbial busses.  Nothing for ages and then a couple at the same time!  The weather decided to cooperate this weekend, which is a first for a while in these parts.  We've recently moved house, so this was the first opportunity since unpacking all my gear after the move, to get out and see what the sky is like from the new back garden.
To put it bluntly, there's a big improvement.  Gone (so far) are the problems with neighbours security lights, light streaming across the garden from peoples kitchen windows and direct views of an LED street light.  The new garden is consistently in more darkness than the old place.  I've a feeling that future observing and imaging sessions in the new garden are going to be amazing!
So, to test things out and get a better feel for the place after the initial impressions, I set up the SBT (12" Dob) out the back garden, and started putting it through it's paces.
The weather had been very breezy with northerly winds and quite cold during the day, with occasional cloud cover passing through quickly.  As dusk approached, the wind dropped to almost nothing, and all horizons cleared to give uninterrupted views all around.

NGC 4485 and NGC 4490

Rather than start with some old favourites, before moving onto tougher targets, I decided to kick straight off with some new ticks, or, objects that I had not observed before.  This time of year is known by observers as Galaxy Season, because of the number of galaxies that can be observed throughout the night.  My first two are listed as Irregular Galaxies.  NGC 4485 (mag 12) and 4490 (mag 10) are very close to each other with 4490 (aka The Cocoon Galaxy) being the brighter.  They are found in the constellation of Canes Venatici.

Canes Venatici, located between Leo, Bootes and Ursa Major.
Credit: Stellarium  0.19.0
Both galaxies were visible in the same field of view when using the 32mm eyepiece, although the dimmer of the two was harder to make out due to it's size and magnitude.  The snippet below shows the two galaxies, although the image is quite poor.

The galaxies as shown in Stellarium.  Resolving 2 of the brighter stars in NGC 4485 was just about possible.
Credit: Stellarium 0.19.0

NGC 4631

Next on my tick list for the evening was this mag 9.6 galaxy.  Known also as the Whale Galaxy, it can be found in the constellation of Canes Venatici, although it is often mistaken for being in Coma Berenices.  It has neighbouring galaxy called The Hockey Stick, due to the apparent curved shape one side of the galaxy.
The location of The Whale Galaxy - NGC 4631.  Credit: Stellarium 0.19.0

The Whale Galaxy is an edge on spiral galaxy, and using the 32 mm Panaview eyepiece, I found that it easily extended 1/3 - 1/2 way across my field of view in the eyepiece.  I found that the galaxy was comparatively bright compare to some that I had viewed with the SBT, and this also helped bring out the very thin outer edges of the galaxy against the background of the moonless sky.

NGC 4631 - The Whale galaxy, shown in Stellarium next to the Crowbar (aka The Hockeystick) galaxy.  Credit: Stellarium 0.19.0
Note the neighbouring dwarf galaxy, NGC 4627.  I did not notice this galaxy on the night, only finding out about it when I was reading up on my main target the following day.  NGC 4627 is mag 13.0, so is probably on the extreme limit of what I can see using the SBT under my local sky.  However, now I know it is there, next time I observe NGC 4631, I will see if I can locate the dwarf galaxy too.

NGC 2903

It was time for me to move back across the other side of Leo, and onto my next target for the evening.  NGC 2903 can be found just in front of the head of Leo, the Lion.  At mag 9.6, this is a great alternative to hunt down, to the other galaxies around Leo.  It is a spiral galaxy, which apparently under very dark skies, shows some good structure in the arms of the spiral.  I easily found the galaxy, and could make out it's shape, although I was struggling to identify any true structure.
The location of NGC 2903, just at the head of Leo.  Credit: Stellarium 0.19.0

A potential target for imaging during this time of the year.  It's magnitude will mean a good couple of hours total exposure will be needed with my 80mm refractor to get anything close to the image above from Stellarium, but it is worthy of an attempt during a future AP session.  Credit: Stellarium 0.19.0
With the night moving on, and my eyes beginning to tire, it was time to swap out the 32mm panaview eyepiece, in favour of the 40mm.  This eyepiece is the largest on I have, and lets in the most amount of light.  Though the size means things can seem brighter, they also appear smaller because of the reduction in magnification.

M65 and M66

With a different eyepiece in the SBT, it was time to re-visit some familiar targets.  I moved over to the hind quarter of Leo, the home of the Leo Triplet.  These are a collection of galaxies, popular with imagers at this time of year.  Though they only show up as grey smudges of light, it's still nice to be able to revisit them.

M13

Leaving the galaxies alone for the evening, the constellation of Hercules was just coming into view, past a tree on the side of the garden.  Hercules is home to some of the best examples of clusters in the northern hemisphere sky.  It's a really common target for observers to show to people new to astronomy, and it's easy to see why.  The cluster is large and bright, although on the night, I was struggling to resolve individual stars in the cluster.  That might have been due to the atmospheric conditions, or just tired eyes.  Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to try to identify the extent of the cluster.  

M92

Staying in Hercules, and the last target for the evening, M92 is another cluster, which is often missed out.  If M13 is the default, go to cluster for new observers, M92 is the hidden gem.  Although hidden is perhaps a bit poor as a description.  Though not quite as large as it's near neighbour, M92 is every bit deserved of some eyepiece time.
On the night, the cluster seemed to have less bright stars throughout, appearing a little more uniformed in brightness, than M13.  It would be an interesting challenge to photograph these two clusters, but the focus would have to be absolutely spot on to do the image any justice.

It had not long gone midnight, and it was time to start packing up.  Tired eyes made trying to pick out targets an increasing challenge.  My initial objective had been achieved.  Simply to set up in the back garden of our new house, and see what it had to offer.  It hasn't disappointed whatsoever.  Very little local light to worry about, means that there is no more waiting for optimum night vision to return after getting distracted by lights coming on and off.  After what has seemed to be a long time, it has been great to get back out, and use the SBT again.  Visual observing is astronomy in it's purest form, and is never something to take for granted.  I can't wait to do it again.
Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Astrocamp - Spring 2019

Astrocamp - Spring 2019

Things to do at Astrocamp in no particular order...
  1. Meet up with some awesome people and come away with some great new friends.
  2. Learn loads!
  3. Have your brain slightly melted by a talk on dark matter by a theoretical physicist.
  4. See a home made Martian rover casually drive past while you're catching up with everyone.
  5. Observe.
  6. Win.
  7. Go for a cycle ride around the stunning surrounding mountains, get back to camp, discover that you have cycled 44 miles in the process, and then stop wondering why your legs feel like lead for the remainder of camp.
  8. Find the 'quiet corner' and know when to retreat there.

The meeting up bit.

So, back by some sort of demand, here is my blog post and my take on the most recent Astrocamp held this weekend.  As I type, people are packing away and saying their goodbyes.  Some with very long journeys ahead of them.  Astrocamp brings people together truly from all around the country.  As happens in every camp, there are the now life long friends made at previous camps, and then there are the new recruits, cautiously stepping into their first star party, not knowing entirely what to expect.
Organised by the team that brings you the Awesome Astronomy podcast twice a month, Astrocamp is held in the village of Cwmdu, between Crickhowell and Talgarth, nestled between the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons.  Cwmdu has everything that is required to hold a small, friendly star party.  A café, a pub, a village hall, a campsite, and most importantly, access to some of the UKs darkest skies.
The view from the top of the campsite at Cwmdu during Astrocamp, Spring 2019.
I have now officially lost count of how many Astrocamps I have been too, but I keep going back.  For me, it's a step away from everything else I do.  There's no one from work and no one from home, but a completely different circle of friends, all with the Astronomy hobby in common. A true Astro Family.  Each camp now feels like a home from home.  This Spring, it was awesome to meet up with some brilliant people again, particularly Mark and Karen who made the mad journey down from Scotland, and come to their first camp in 18 months.  Quite a commitment, given that Storm Hannah was unleashed on the UK, threatening to blow down anything in her path.  At the risk of turning this post into a list of names, I will leave it there, but everyone who I spoke to, and who took the time to say hello, thank you.  Your were awesome!  One other shout out though must go to Nic and Kevin, first time visitors and who were lovely, letting me join their breakfast table in the village café on Saturday morning.  It was an absolute pleasure to meet you both, and I hope to see you again in September!

The learning bit.

Astronomy is for me, as it is for many others I expect, a lifelong quest to learn.  Even the professionals are in it for the learning.  A hobby where you suddenly know everything would soon become a chore.  Although it could be said that sitting under the marquee on the common, under the red rope lights on Sunday night was one of the more memorable learning experiences of camp whilst talking about docking and waffles, it was indeed at the Spiral Arms that I actually learnt most things.  The main quiz held in the village hall on Saturday is a chance to pick up all sorts of random knowledge.  Learning outcomes can come in many forms.  Some of these nuggets can be hugely complex, others, mere facts that you hadn't appreciated and always incorrectly assumed in times gone by.  Who knew that the Double Cluster is actually in Perseus for example, and not in Cassiopeia after all?
The afternoon at the Spiral Arms is always the highlight of camp for me.  I love the way everyone at camp gets together for the quizzes and talk.  A chance to dust off the brain cells, and fill the grey matter with a bit more knowledge from others.
The gathering at 'The Spiral Arms', the pop up pub at the village hall in Cwmdu.  I'm not sure what Rae has just said to Chris, but those are some evil looking eyes there!!!

The brain melt bit.

The talk at The Spiral Arms this year was given by David Abergel, called 'Uncovering the secrets of dark matter'.  David's background is as a theoretical physicist, and it's fair to say his talk was pretty intense.  After all, it's hard going presenting to a large group of mostly amateur astronomers on a subject which science itself often replies to questions by saying 'we just don't know, but we're looking'.  I found David's talk really interesting, bemusing, complex and amusing, all in one go.  I just keep thinking to myself WIMPS!  I am in awe on how someone can stand up and seemingly deliver something this complex to a listening group completely unscripted and yet still make you feel that you have picked something up and come away from the talk having learned something new.  It's fair to say though, that for a dyslexic amateur astronomer who only just scraped maths in school, and has a memory like a sieve, that I would need to sit a listen to the same talk a few times for some of those things to really sink in.
David, thankyou for coming to camp and delivering your talk.  Hat's off to you, Sir!
David Abergel, this camps guest speaker at The Spiral Arms.

The Martian rover bit.

One of the sights that caused the biggest reaction this camp, was the appearance of a Martian rover.  There I was, standing, talking to my Astro Family on Saturday, when I heard the high pitched whine of servos moving a creation across the Astrocamp landscape.  Piloted by Chris, his latest DIY creation come into view.  Chris has spent many months of time and effort into creating a home made, remote controlled Mars Rover.  Much of the structure is made up of 3D printed components, and aluminium frame.  Based on NASAs Curiosity Rover, Chris's build steps are written up in his own blog.  You can follow his build steps here.  It certainly is a fantastic piece of home build engineering, especially when you consider what the original Mars rover was built to do.  It's fair to say Chris's build wouldn't look out of place on the Martian surface.  However, it did make me think of Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, with his brain the size of a planet, as Chris's build, with all it's potential for exploration and discovery, was soon turned into Astrocamps very own Deliveroo-ver cake delivery system, as it was loaded up with various pieces of cake, and sent on it's way around camp.
The rover in all it's glory.

The rover and the pilot and creator.

The observing bit.

Astrocamp has an unofficial clear skies guarantee with many different interpretations of it's terms and conditions, meaning that at some point over camp, day or night, and not necessarily restricted to the skies visible from Cwmdu, a clear sky will present itself to someone somewhere, for an undetermined period of time.  This year, we were fortunate to get some excellent observing conditions on Saturday night, the first night of camp.
As a trial, this year, I decided to get a pitch down the very bottom of the site.  These pitches are large pitches, with EHUs available.  What has historically put people off from using these pitches before had been the proximity of the road running along the bottom of the campsite.  Last camp, I went down the bottom of the site one night, to gauge for myself how good, or bad, the observing conditions actually are.  I thought it was worth a try, staying down the bottom of the site.  It's also worth remembering that the good people from Awesome Astronomy also have an agreement with the local authority, that the LED street lamps at the bottom of the site are switched off at 10pm each evening for the duration of the camp.  This makes a big difference.
So, with the first clear night available, I decided to set up my 12" dob on my pitch and waited for it to get dark.  Once the stars started putting in an appearance, I was joined by fellow Astrocamper, Steve, for some views through the eyepiece.  It's fair to say that there is still a bit of local light pollution coming from a single street lamp down the road, over a road junction, but this was only noticeable when moving away from the tents.  With careful siting of the telescope, you can make sure there are tents between your scope and the light, so it becomes hardly noticeable.  
As the constellations were revealed by the darkening sky, Steve and I were able to start picking off various targets.  We had good views of M51 where we could make out the cores of the interacting galaxies with relative ease, even against the distant light pollution caused by the night lights of Abergavenny.  
We then moved the scope higher in the sky, and took in the Leo triplet of galaxies, each being picked out from the darkening background of the sky as light grey wisps.  The 32mm Panaview eyepiece really helped out significantly, allowing us to position all 3 of the galaxy group into a single field of view.
Next we moved away from the SE horizon and pushed the dob around to the constellation of Auriga.  It was time to start picking out some of the riches of it's clusters.  We soon picked out M36 and M37, being able to distinguish a blue hue to the colour of the stars, especially in M37.  The same 32mm eyepiece combined with the dob allowed us to resolve many of the stars as single pricks of light.
Though the sky was predominantly clear, we were interrupted from time to time with passing cloud which gave opportunity to sit down and establish what was to be next on the list of observations to make.
My next target was M3, a globular cluster in the constellation of Canes Venatici.  This took some finding for some reason, although it is reasonably easy to establish where you ought to be looking in the night sky, it did take several minutes to pick out.  However, when I did get it in the eyepiece, the dense core of the cluster stuck out really well.  I was able to resolve the individual stars around the perimeter of the cluster, but, not so much towards the centre.
It's been well over a year since I last did any sort of visual astronomy, and it was simply awesome to be standing at the eyepiece once again, instead of running my astrophotography set up.  Like many observers, I carry a notebook with my kit, and take notes on what I have seen each evening.  In the back of the notebook, I have a tick list of the remaining objects to see in various catalogues.  On Saturday, I turned to my Messier tick list, showing the remaining objects I hadn't yet managed to observe.  Working through that list, I managed to tick off two more.
The first new tick was M61.  This is a barred galaxy in the constellation of Virgo.  Virgo is in prime position this time of year, ready to display is vast collection of galaxies to observers and imagers alike.  At magnitude 10.1, it is beyond the capability of smaller aperture scopes.  I wouldn't be able to pick it out with my 150mm reflector or 80mm refractor.  The 300mm dob has the light gathering ability to help me pick it out though.  Even then, it is a tricky object to locate amongst many other galaxies in the locality, but I was confident that I got it and as pleased to be able to strike another one off the list.
My final observation for the evening was something that I have wanted to observe and image for a long time.  M104 is the Sombrero galaxy.  To be honest, this one wasn't in ideal position, being quite low toward the horizon in the direction of Abergavenny, but once I did locate it, I was pleased to be able to see the characteristic black line that appears to strike through the lower portion of the galaxy.  This is definitely a target for the AP list, although just to be able to observe it is quite special in itself.

The win bit.

As mentioned earlier, the highlight of camp for many people, especially if there is not much observing to be done, is the afternoon in the village hall.  In all the camps I have been to, I have never been part of any team that has won anything, but have always come away having had a brilliant afternoon.  This losing streak came to an end in spectacular fashion this Spring.
The quizzes are very light hearted, and teams can be as big or small as you want.  I joined a team made up of very familiar faces, and we sat down to quiz away.
This year, the top 3 teams all finished with 23 points, and after a tie break, we came in 3rd, receiving a pair of Celestron binoculars for the team.  Obviously, it's a little impractical to share these out, so it was decided that Chris should have them to be used in his outreach work within his local astronomy society.  A well worth cause for sure.  But the winning didn't stop there!
The notorious Masters of the Universe quiz is the last thing to be held in the afternoon.  This is fiendishly difficult requiring a great deal of knowledge.  So tough are the questions (of which there were 8), no one has ever come anywhere near scoring full marks.  This year was no different.  Our teams winning score was a fantastic total of 3!  Alas, I could not contribute to any  of the questions at all.  They were well beyond me, but by virtue of just sitting on the same table as the clever people, seemed to get tarred with the winners title!  The prize, perhaps more important than any other - beer!

The cycle ride bit.

The Astrocamp programme is crammed full of things to do.  From organised solar observing to tutorials, to quizzing and to the high tea gathering on the common on Mondays.  However, there are gaps in the programme that allow some down time.  It allows people to go off and explore the surrounding areas either on foot, or by vehicle.  Of course, many also chose to take the chance to get some extra sleep in the peace and quiet of the morning.  This year, I took my bike to camp with me.  No matter where I am, or what time I go to bed, I tend to wake at the same time, around 6.00am.  When I woke on Sunday morning, the campsite was silent.  I got myself ready, and tip toed out of camp at around 6.45 and set off.  Around 5 hours later, returned to camp in time for lunch, having covered 44 miles of a circular route taking in some of the best scenery that the Black Mountains has to offer.  My route took me to Talgarth, then onto some old stomping grounds of Three Cocks and Tregoyd, (where I worked some 20 years ago), onto Hay on Wye and then Capel y Ffin, taking in Gospel Pass on the way.  Eventually, making my way back to Cwmdu via Llanbedr and Crickhowell.  It's fair to say that the ride was a bit ambitious for me, especially when I realised at one point that if I didn't stop and turn soon, I was heading to Abergavenny, in completely the opposite direction from where I needed to be!  Am I glad I did it though?  You bet I am!
In completely the wrong order of appearance, pictures of my ride around the foot, and then over the top of the Black Mountains.

The quiet corner bit.

And so another awesome camp comes to an end.  This camp seemed to go so quickly, but I look back at everything that I did and reckon that I couldn't have fitted any more in if I had tried.  From sleeping in the van the night before camp started, waiting for Storm Hannah to do her worst, to getting the feeling of the Sun's influence on my face on Monday morning, I packed up the van and headed home happy.
My neighbours for this camp were Steve and Jax, along with their dogs.  A massive thankyou to them both for being great Astrocamp neighbours.  A very special hat-tip to Jax for an amazing home cooked lasagne too!  How can you repay someone for feeding you something like that when you have nothing prepared in return?  I am extremely grateful.  Thank you.
My decision to get a pitch right at the bottom of the site raised some questions by some.  Why would you go down there?  The road, the lights, etc.  Often seen as a last resort by some in the search of the last of the pitches available with an EHU, I believe those pitches offer a lot.  In particular, a quiet corner, away from everything else.  Granted, being near the road, during the day time can mean that you are slightly closer to traffic noise than the rest of the camp.  But honestly, you don't notice it a huge amount.  Actually, I really did like this quiet corner of camp.
It's fair to say that this is a very social event, and rightly so.  It really wouldn't be the same without people coming together in the way they do.  For many of us, it is the only time in a year that we are able to meet up.  It's also fair to say that things can get quite raucous and noisy when the drink has been flowing, regardless of the time of day or night.  There are some who love that aspect, and it's good to be able to see people let their hair down and enjoy their camp.  There is also a conflict.  With people who want the partying and the late nights when there's no astronomy to be done, there are also those who want or need the peace and quiet.  Particularly those with younger guests.  It is a family event after all.  The opportunity to get rest at night, and relax is important, and makes the event special for those too.  What no one would like to see is for people get put off from attending what is a truly unique experience.  Will that happen in the future?  Who knows.  
As ever, my expressed thanks must go to the organisers, Ralph, Paul, Damien, John and of course, the one that keeps them all in order, Jen.  It's been another memorable camp, and I hope to see you all again in September.  Thank you so much.  It's truly appreciated.
Finally, thanks to you for reading.  My blog posts on my experiences at camp, are exactly that.  I'd love to hear about other peoples experiences too.  The best bits, the tough bits, the whole thing.  Until we meet up to do it all again in September, best wishes and clear skies.
The quiet corner, bathed in sunlight.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

What Controls The Hardware - Update

A couple of years ago, I put up a blog post about all the software that I was using at that point, to control the hardware I had at the time.  Well, I thought it was time for an update.  I've changed my mount, my camera and have picked up several other hints and tips since then, and my software has changed to keep up.
One other thing that I have recently added to my collection of hardware is a dedicated imaging PC.  The Intel NUC 7i5BNH is around 15cm square and around 4 cm tall.  This week, I spent 2 evenings putting on the operating system and all the software I need to start using it.

The PC

The new NUC carries a 7th generation Intel i5 processor which is more than enough to support the software I require.  I won't be using this for image processing, so anything more than this would probably be a bit of a waste.  The beauty of the NUC is that once you have decided what processor you want, you are then free to chose the RAM and hard drive size, and fit them accordingly.  So, I went with 8GB RAM and a 250GB SATA Solid State Drive.  The NUC also comes with an on-board wireless access card.
I've installed:
  • 64 bit Windows 10 Enterprise.
  • Bitdefender antivirus.  
  • The driver bundle was downloaded from the Intel website, and all relevant drivers were installed.  Windows 10 actually does a reasonable job of installing what it needs, but given this was a vanilla build, I wanted to use all the manufacturers drivers from the start.
  • I gave the wireless access controller a fixed IP address, and enabled RDP which allows me to remote onto the NUC from another machine on my home network.

The Astro Hardware

Everything else is fairly standard astronomy kit.
  • SkyWatcher EQ6-R Pro mount.
  • Altair Hypercam 183c (v1) for imaging.
  • GPCAM Mono for guiding.
  • USB3 12v hub

Installing The Software

There's a requirement to install the software and drivers for all the kit in specific order.  None of the installs are particularly tricky though.  Where I can, I've put a link to the download locations I used.

Cartes du Ciel v4.0

I use this for selecting targets and slewing the telescope to them.  It saves having to rely on using the handset on the mount.  It's free and opensource software. available from here.  Once installed, there is not much to do, other than set up your location.  If you move around several observing locations, you can save all the locations in the 'Observatory Database'.  All you need is the GPS coordinates of the location.
At the end of the process, the software will be able to connect to the mount, but there are a few more things to go through first.

AltairCapture 3.7

This is imaging/capture software from Altair, designed to work with their cameras.  Although I don't actually use this software, there is some important information on the Altair downloads website regarding the drivers of the Altair cameras.  From experience, I can say that as long as their instructions are followed IN ORDER, then you shouldn't have any problems.  You don't necessarily need to configure Altair Capture, but by installing their software, all the latest drivers for all their cameras are installed.  Note, DO NOT plug any camera into the PC before installation of the software.

SharpCap Pro 3.2

I have invested in a lifetime license for SharpCap Pro, and use it as my only image capturing software.  If I buy a different camera in the future, then it supports cameras from all the main manufacturers, and is continually being developed and added to.
According to the SharpCap website download page, most users should only ever need the 32 bit version of the software.  So, that is what I have used.  I downloaded the latest version, installed it and applied my SharpCap Pro license.
As I had installed Altair Capture before hand, I was able to connect my Hypercam and GPCAM to the NUC via the powered USB3 hub, and connect SharpCap to them both.  I use SharpCap for polar alignment, via the GPCAM guide camera, and then perform the rest of the imaging with the Hypercam, which is why it was important to check I could connect to both cameras at this point.

Altair ASCOM Drivers v 1.4.10

These are the first of 3 sets of ASCOM drivers required for each piece of software to talk to hardware.  In this case, for the Altair cameras.  I downloaded these from a link the on the Altair downloads page.

.Net 3.5 for Windows

Although available for download, it is actually a feature which I enabled within windows.  After enabling this feature, the NUC needed a reboot.  It is a prerequisite for the next download and install.  Without this in place, I could not continue with the remaining installs.  A quick internet search will tell you how to enable the feature.

ASCOM Platform 6.4 SP1

This is a platform of different ASCOM drivers for controlling all sorts of hardware.  The latest platform is available from the main ASCOM downloads page.

SkyWatcher ASCOM Drivers v 6.0.6262

These drivers are the final piece to the jigsaw, allowing the computer, and the various pieces of software to talk to the SkyWatcher mount.  These are also available from the ASCOM website. under their Telescope/Mount Drivers section.

PHD2 v2.6.5

This is guiding software, used for tracking a star in the field of view of the guide scope.  It determines if the star is moving within the field of view, and then sends guiding adjustments to the mount to ensure the guide star stays in the same place.  The latest version is available from the PHD Website
Once installed, PHD2 will automatically enter a small wizard to set up some guiding parameters.  Some of these it sets up itself, but I needed to add the focal length of my guide scope, which is 206.6mm

That was it for the basic installs.  The NUC was now able to talk to the hardware, and all the software was able to communicate with what it needed to.  Each piece of the software needed a little more configuration in it's own right, but no further set-up was required.
I expect I will need to refer back to this in the future when the time comes to rebuild, the NUC, or if I invest in a new machine.  Up until that point though, I hope it helps others too.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, 11 February 2019

Pixinsight Progress, The Flaming Star and Orion

The Flaming Star Nebula - IC 405

I've had somewhat of a hiatus from astronomy and astrophotography for a while.  So, when a weekend at the start of February presented itself with good weather (a rarity in these parts this Winter) and a new moon, I was determined to get outside with all the kit.  Setting up out the back garden highlighted how rusty I was, when it come to getting everything right.  The slick operation that had been refined over the many months previous had turned into one of head scratching and re-tracing steps to get things all done and dusted.  Eventually, I had everything ready (ish) and so I threw myself into my first night of imaging for quite a while.
I wanted to try for a new target, something that I had not imaged before.  Not knowing if it was even possible to pick up this nebula, I selected IC 405, The Flaming Star Nebula.  I had seen many images of this by people using mono CCD cameras, but nothing from the Hypercam range of OSC cameras.  I decided to give it a crack, and collected 30 light frames, followed by 29 dark frames.  The next morning, I collected 30 flat frames.
IC 405 is in the constellation of Auriga, and is around 1500 light year away.  This image is made up of 30 x 3 minute exposures, 90 minutes overall.
As a first attempt at the target, and the first time back in the astronomy seat for a while, I'm quite pleased with it.  It's a bit noisy, which is something I could sort out with better processing, and different camera settings, but overall, I'm happy.

The Orion Nebula - M45

That night, I decided to image a second target.  M45 is the 'go to' target for many imagers at this time of year.  After all, it's well positioned, bright, and colourful in OSC and DSLR cameras.  Surprisingly though, this is only the second time I had imaged this target with the Altair 183c Hypercam.
Because of it's brightness, I needed to be careful not to blow out the core of the image too much.  In a way, restricting the amount of data I was collecting.  It's very hard to do this, and the final image relies on some processing to bring out the detail in the central, brighter core of the nebula.
I was able to use the same dark and flat frames when creating this image, but this time, I only used 22 light frames.
The Orion Nebula is in the constellation of Orion.  On a clear evening with good quality skies, it is visible naked eye and is a mark of how much, or how little light pollution you have.  This image is made up of just over an hour of exposure time.

PixInsight and Progress with Calibrating

So to the crux of this post.  It was great to get out under the stars again.  To have everything set up, working away without too much hassle was a timely reminder to me of how much I had missed sitting outside in sub zero temperatures, getting annoyed with neighbours lights, and not being able to feel my fingers.  Good times!  But, the big development I made this time around, and the thing that I had learnt came at the calibration stage of processing.  Last September, I thought I made a huge break through in the calibration stages of my images.  In truth, I probably did, but could I repeat it?  No.  I refer to the thing that is common with the highly sensitive Hypercam 183c series, and that is the amp glow and sensor/star burst that appears in the right side frames.  Particularly in the dark and light frames.
A single dark frame, stretched in PixInsight shows up the anomaly.

Here's the theory if you're not familiar with the process.  The light frames capture all the detail from the target you are imaging.  But, they also contain lots of other anomalies.  These could be sensor anomalies as is the case with the Altair Hypercam, but also pixel noise etc.  Taking dark frames (exposures with the cap on) gives you a series of frames that contain nothing other than whatever is produced purely by the camera and the imaging train.  During the calibration process, in principle, you stack up all your dark frames to produce one single 'master dark' frame.  All the noise and anomalies in this master dark is then compared to each of the light frames.  The software (in this case PixInsight for me) looks at the master dark frame and subtracts whatever the anomalies are in there from your light frames.  Theoretically, you are then left with a much cleaner set of light frames which can then be further calibrated before finally being stacked to produce your single image, ready for processing.  Hope that makes sense.
In my case though, I couldn't get this to work reliably.  I would go through the whole calibration process, and still be left with a final image containing all the noise and anomalies which should of been removed.  Then, along come the eureka moment.
Over the last 18 months, I have been following the 'Astro Dude' YouTube channel, run by Mitch.  He has produced an excellent series of 12 tutorials for calibrating and processing data in PixInsight.  I was having a browse through the channel, and noticed a video that he produced around 6 months ago.  It was this video that held the hidden gem.  The awesome thing is that Mitch is also a Sharpcap Pro user, a Altair Hypercam user and a PixInsight user.  Rather conveniently, the exact set of tools that I use!  I set about watching the video, then watching it again making some notes.  And then finally again to make sure that there was nothing that I had missed.  I followed my notes, using the exact same settings as Mitch did in his video, and like magic, no sensor noise or no amp glow in my final image stack!  I was made up!  If you want to see this video, well, here it is...


I don't know about you, but seeing things in video, as someone else is doing them is all well and good.  But when it comes to doing it myself, I find it easier to have everything in notes with some screenshots etc.  So, I set about typing up my notes which I can now carry with me, and refer to whenever I need to.  I've made those notes available for download if you want them.  A huge thank you to Mitch for putting up this tutorial, and a massive plug for his YouTube Channel  Definitely subscribe to it, if only to pick out little gems in some of the videos.
So, that about wraps up this post.  Thanks for reading!