Tuesday, 27 September 2016

AstroCamp 9 - At Season's Start

My Official Start to the 16/17 Season.

I quite like the band Green Day.  I wouldn't call myself a die hard fan though.  I've been to see them once.  I've got a few of their albums and might even be able to strum a few chords of a couple of their songs.  As I left AstroCamp yesterday lunch time, the rain was being driven against the windscreen of the van by the breeze swirling around the hills and mountains of the Brecon Beacons.  Before I got as far as the Farmers Arms, some familiar notes came from the radio.  The opening sequence to Green Day's 'Wake Me Up When September Ends'.  I always find myself in a very reflective but positive mood when I leave camp and this time was no different.  The subject of the song doesn't have a connection with AstroCamp,  In fact, it's about death, memory and missing a close relation.  Out of all those lyrics coming out of the radio though, there are a couple taken out of the original context of the song which made me smile.
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
This Autumn, we've had all sorts of weather thrown at us.  From driving rain to wonderfully clear sky with bright sunshine, and those lyrics taken from the chorus of the song pretty much sums up AstroCamp for me.  We spend a huge amount of time when looking up, either looking for gaps in the cloud waiting for an end to the rain, or spotting the stars and constellations through brilliantly clear skies.  We stumble around camp during all hours of day or night getting drenched, but jumping at the smallest chance to get some observing or imaging in.  That, as the lyrics say, is just who we are.

Camp started a day early for me this year, arriving on Friday after a rather hectic half day in work.  The tent was pitched and the site was already populated with familiar faces from all around the country.  Some of the most eager people had turned up even earlier in the week, determined to be there and ready to go when the clear sky put in an appearance.  The buzz and excitement had already started.  As a bonus, Friday evening produced an opportunity to get stuck straight in with the observing and imaging.  For this first evening, there was no need to drag all my kit up the hill onto the common area because there was plenty of room around me with clear sky above, so I set up the AVX mount and the Dob ready for a bit of imaging and observing,  It must be said, conditions weren't the most steady, or clearest.  There was a great deal of moisture in the air and at times, visibility was a little patchy, but for a couple of hours at least, there was always something to look at or photograph.  I tried two different imaging runs that evening.  The first was of M33, the Triangulum Galaxy,  It was positioned just above some nearby trees, so I could get a view of it.  I could observe it through the 150p telescope, so I put the camera on, and started the run.  Results though were disappointing.  In the final stacked image of 30 x 90 second frames, and even with a couple of hours attempted processing, only the smallest sign of the galaxy could be coaxed from the data collected.  In fact, the data has now been binned.  I thought this was going to happen by looking at some of the sub frames as they were coming onto the screen, so at the end of that run, I decided to go for the tried and trusted Andromeda Galaxy.  It's often the first choice for astrophotographers and observers.  Sitting in the constellation of the same name, the galaxy is huge in terms of deep space targets, quite comfortably filling the frame of most cameras.  I let the AVX track the constellation while the camera run worked through it's list of exposures.  It was quite a short run, taking in the following:

  • 15 x 60 second at ISO 400
  • 15 x 60 second at ISO 800
  • 5 x 60 second dark frames at ISO 400
  • 5 x bias frames at ISO 400
This is the result of stacking that data and putting it through some processing.  I'm surprised, and very pleased with it, although I think with better conditions, resolving more of the core of the galaxy should be possible.  I'm particularly pleased that some of the dust lanes of the galaxy have come out.

The Andromeda Triplet of Galaxies.  M31, M32 and M110
Saturday is the first official day of camp.  It's when most people arrive and the campsite gets prepared for the rest of the event.  Shutters are put up over windows to block out as much local light pollution as possible,  The common is officially takes it place as the main centre for observing and meeting people, and the camp HQ is created.  Soon, it was thriving with people catching up with each other and meeting new people.  There was even a collimation talk thrown in for good measure for people who wanted a refresher on how to carry out this extremely important task.  However, the prospect for observing on this first official night was absolute zero.  It rained.  It rained lots.  It rained in the only way in which it does rain in the Brecon Beacons.  So, what do astronomers do when they haven't seen each other for a long time, and the rain puts pay to any observing?  Well, back at Astrocamp 8 in May, I started my blog post of the camp by saying that amateur astronomers are a bunch of hardened drinkers with an astronomy problem.  That pretty much sums up my experience.  In with the rain, throw in a marquee, trying to attach, and then re-attach walls to the marquee in the dark, a mini keg of beer, bison vodka, a Chewbacca mask and a bunch of like minded people with a rubbish internet connection for good measure and you might start to get an idea of what could happen.  Let's leave it there.
Sunday.  The day of rest.  At least, the day of getting up, having breakfast, and then going back to bed for a couple more hours following on from the previous nights antics.  As is tradition, Sunday is take over day at the village hall, and the Spiral Arms is born once again.  It's an afternoon requiring a degree of concentration, but relaxing.  For me, there are two highlights of the whole afternoon.  One being the main pub quiz, and the other being the talk.  The pub quiz is always great fun, with some excellent prizes being put up for grabs courtesy of Tring Astronomy Centre.  This year's main prize was a small refractor travel telescope, followed by some vouchers and then DVD's and books etc.  The great thing with the quiz is that there is usually a prize reserved as a beginners prize, often given to the people who scored the least.  Plus, this year, in an act of incredible generosity, the first prize winners decided amongst themselves that they had no need for the refractor telescope and insisted that it was put up as a prize for the younger contingent of the gathering.  An impromptu quiz for the under 15's was arranged and the prize was given to the winner.
We then moved onto the main talk for the afternoon.  Dr. Chris North of Cardiff University, an AstroCamp regular, gave the most interesting and well pitched talk on a topic that is incredibly complex.  The discovery of gravitational waves.  Starting with an explanation of Isaac Newtons equation describing gravity, then moving onto Albert Einsteins theory describing the existence of gravitational waves, Chris was able to explain this is apparent ease in a way which I found quite easy to follow.  Even the workings of LIGO were put across and described in such a way that people from a none scientific background could follow.  I could have quite happily listened all afternoon to the information that was being offered.  I found it a very engaging afternoon, just brilliant.
That afternoon, rumours started to gather some momentum about the potential for some observing opportunities for Sunday evening.  With one eye on the weather forecasts I made the decision to leave the AVX and photography kit in the scope tent for the evening.  I broke down the dob, and carried it up to a spot on the common ready to snatch any chance I could get at observing.  The choice was a good one.  We were blessed with some excellent skies for more time than the initial forecast gave.  There was a great buzz of excitement on the common.  As I sat down on my little stool and waited for darkness to arrive, trying hard to pick out the first stars of the evening, I could hear people around me receiving help and advice from others on how to use their scope and get the best out of it.  It brought home how important events like this are for our hobby, and for people on their very first steps into amateur astronomy.  Collectively on the common that evening, there was literally hundreds of years of experience on all different aspects, and the most generous thing about it all is that everyone is only too happy to help anyone.  I could hear people experiencing their first views of Saturn with the yelps of excitement and disbelief.  I even heard the winner of the under 15's impromptu quiz, Harvey, cry out that he had accidentally found the double cluster with his new scope.  This brought quite a few laughs and chuckles from around the darkness of the common.  It all adds to the experience of camp.
My own observing list for the session was quite extended.  It was a mixture of new targets and old favourites.
  • NGC 7790 - an Open Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • The Ring Nebula in Lyra
  • The Bubble Nebula with UHC filter in Cassiopeia
  • M29 - an Open Cluster in Cygnus
  • M72 - a Globular Cluster in Capricornus - tricky to find and quite low on the horizon
  • M73 - an Asterism in Aquarius - again tricky to find and quite low in the night sky
  • NGC 457 - the Owl Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • NGC 7563 - a Galaxy in Pegasus
  • Andromeda Triplet - M31, M32 and M110
  • NGC 7789 - an Open Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici
  • M101 - a Spiral Galaxy in Cassiopeia
  • The Cygnus Loop - the visible portions made up of the 3 parts of the veil nebula.  NGC 6960, NGC 6992 and Pickerings Triangular Wisp
The Veil nebula, under the conditions offered at AstroCamp is simply stunning.  It has confirmed itself as my favourite Summer time target.  When observed at UHC, it simply pops out of the background of the Milky Way at you.  I was able to observe 3 main parts to the nebula and spent more time observing it than any other object.  It was also my absolute pleasure to show it off to around 8 or so other people, most of whom had never seen it before.  Words can not describe.
Alas, unfortunately, the session was brought to quite an abrupt end when rain was felt on the faces of people trying to eek out the last observing opportunities as the cloud began to threaten.
I didn't want to leave my telescope out overnight given the the forecast for further rain overnight, so I brought all the kit back to my own scope tent and bedded down for the evening.
It's becoming a bit of trend at the moment for the last full day of camp to become a bit of a washout.  Weather warnings had been released for the rain during the day on Monday and extending into Monday night.  This meant that many people, myself included, decided to pack up and leave early with no foreseeable chance for any sort of observing to take place on the final evening.  It does mean that one part of camp, High Tea, on the common does suffer a little.  In the halcyon dreamy days of wall to wall sunshine and uber dark skies, people would be found around the common sharing stories in the sun, relaxing, and getting ready for the final nights observing.  This time, it was not to be.  
So that was my experience of AstroCamp 9.  It's always sad to leave camp, and I find myself in the familiar process of having to re-adjust back to normal home life.  Each time I've returned from camp, it's been like returning from the end of the best holiday that you never want to end.  We now find ourselves waiting for bookings to open for next Spring when it will all begin again.  I so much want to go again and will be waiting for news for when bookings open.
I've already posted my thanks to the event organisers, but once again, thanks to Ralph, John, Damien, Paul, Jennie and Chris for all the hard work put into getting the event up and running.  Thanks to everyone who took time to stop and talk and laugh and not cry!  I sincerely hope to see you all again at AstroCamp 10!

Thursday, 1 September 2016

3 Sessions - 1 Post

3 Sessions - 1 Post.

Good evening fellow amateur astronomers.  We've had a run of clear evenings recently in Herefordshire, and while we still have to wait for a while before the sky is dark enough to start observing, I have managed to get a few sessions in.  I've been out twice imaging and once observing, all from the back garden.  So, to kick off part one of this posting.

Session 1 - 26th August 2016

My first session recently was an imaging one.  I am still getting used to the AVX mount, so any opportunity I can get to use it, I set it up and try out some new things.  Rather than whizzing around the sky in all directions, I'm targeting objects which aren't too dim and can be seen with ease from the mount position in the back garden.  I had two in mind for this session.  M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy, and open cluster M103.
Seeing conditions weren't brilliant it must be said with alot of moisture in the atmosphere.  This meant that the stars were twinkling a great deal, and some of the dimmer stars that I can usually see were not visible to the naked eye.
The first set of data I collected was for the M51, Thie Whirlpool Galaxy.  I collected the following exposures:
20 x 60 sec iso 400 light frames.
3 x 60 sec iso 400 with cap on dark frames.
3 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 with cap on bias frames.
All the frames were stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and processed further in GIMP2.
This is the final result of the first collection of data.
M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy
In the final image, although the galaxy is visible quite clearly, when you zoom into the image, there is evidence of star trailing going on.  It was evident that something was amiss with the positioning of my mount.  This could be down to poor polar alignment, poor balancing of the scope and counterweights, or even the mount being uneven on the ground.  Nevertheless, for a first effort, it was acceptable for me.
The second set of data I collected was of M103, an open cluster in Cassiopeia.  Knowing what the conditions were like in terms of seeing, I wasn't sure how well the second set of data was gong to turn out.  For this image, I collected the following exposures:
10 x 30 sec iso 800 light frames.
10 x 30 sec iso 400 light frames.
3 x 30 sec iso 400 dark frames.
3 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 bias frames.
Again, the frames were stacked and processed giving the following result.
M103 in Cassiopeia

The bright star in the top left of the image is Ruchbah.  The size and fuzziness of it are a result of the atmosphere, not any degree of post processing.  The cluster can be see clearly though.  Again, zooming in on the raw frames after I had packed away showed plenty of trailing going on.

Session 2 - 29th August 2016

I was trying to cram these sessions in whilst getting up early for work the next day.  For this session, I was already tired, but wanted to do something.  Setting up the SBT is much quicker than setting up the AVX mount and imaging kit.  So, it was time for some observing.
I turned straight to my notebook and to the page on which I have a list of Messier objects I have still to see.  I chose two targets to go for that evening.
First up, in the constellation of Ophiuchus on the South Western horizon.  Before the constellation sunk below next doors fence line, I waned to find M14, which is a globular cluster.  It took quite a while to find it, even though it it supposedly rather bright at magnitude 7.6.  Nevertheless, using the 32mm panaview eyepiece I could make out a rather disappointing, although distinct grey smudge.  I was unable to resolve any individual stars though.
I had several attempts at some other targets, but the constellation was dropping lower and lower, so I decided to move onto the second new target of the evening, M76.  This is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Andromeda.  This nebula is also know as the Little Dumbbell nebula,  this was another very tricky target to pick out at first.  Sticking with the 32mm eyepiece, I scoured the area of the constellation where the nebula should be found and eventually honed in on it.  As the name suggests, it looks like a smaller version of the Dumbbell Nebula.  However, it's also dimmer with less colour too.  The SBT proved its worth once again though, gathering enough photons to allow me to see it.  I also attached the UHC filter which allowed the nebula to stick out a little more against the darkened background of the rest of space.  Not amazing to look at, but really pleasing to have found such a small and tricky object.

Session 3 - 30th August 2016

The final session of this little run, and I was greeted by the smell of burning plastic.  Not from any of my equipment I must add, but from the chavs 'over there' who decided that burning their rubbish was the right thing to do instead of leaving it for the binmen.  I digress.  Fortunatly, there wasn't much wind around, but what was around carried the smoke along the street instead of straight towards us, So, we missed the worst of it.
I wanted to go back and revisit the Whirlpool Galaxy again, determined that I could get a better result with better data.  Armed with a plan that looked like this, I started collecting data,
30 x 120 sec iso 400 light frames.
5 x 120 sec iso 400 dark frames.
5 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 bias frames.
Once everything had been collected, I did notice that some of the frames showed evidence of significant trailing, though some frames were near perfect.  I noted that perhaps 2 minutes of unguided exposure was perhaps a little too much to expect of the current set up.  This time however, I had taken much greater care preparing the mount and its alignment before I started collecting the data.  Post stacking and processing, the final image I feel was better than my first attempt.
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Sessions over, and what have I learnt?
  • 2 minute exposures are perhaps a little too long.
  • It really is worth taking the time to get the mount level and aligned correctly first time.
  • Greater different seems to be achieved by changing the iso settings that exposure time.
  • Sometimes, hours of post processing isn't always required.  The last image was produced in 30 minutes after the stacking process!
Notes for the future...
  • Investigate the use of VNC viewer to monitor the imaging run remotely from another computer.
  • Following a quick test shot of M81 and M82, this should be my next target.  They can both be captured in the same field of view and are both well positioned at this time of year.
Until next time, clear skies!