Saturday, 30 December 2017

Hypercam 183c - The Boxing Day Marathon

Hypercam 183c - The Boxing Day Marathon

In what is probably going to be my final post of 2017, it's time for an update on my latest exploits with the Starwave 80 ED-R and the Altair Hypercam 183c.  Christmas has once again been kind to me with a lovely selection of Astro gifts from family, and for once, the new astro toys didn't bring on the traditional onslaught of crappy weather for days on end.  At least, not straight away anyway.  That part was delayed by a day or so which give me an ideal opportunity to get out under some great skies.
Boxing Day night 2017 and the forecast was for freezing cold, clear and still conditions from sunset to sunrise.  I set up my imaging kit and gave first light to my new Light Pollution filter and first use to my new case for the hand controller of the AVX mount.  


My objectives for the night were to image the Iris Nebula, the Flame and Horsehead Nebulae and the Orion Nebula.  Outside of these targets, I was happy to just fill in any spare time with a couple of other targets.  At the moment, I have to wait for Orion to rise above the rooftops to allow me to get them into the telescope's field of view.  That doesn't happen until about 11.30pm, so first target was to be the Iris Nebula.
While capturing images of my targets, I also wanted to use a variety of different settings within Sharpcap pro.  I've included the settings with each of the images.

Tools For The Job

  • Celestron AVX Mount (unguided)
  • Altair Starwave 80 ED-R
  • Altair Hypercam 183c
  • 2" Light Pollution Filter
  • Sharpcap Pro
  • PixInsight
  • Photoshop CS2
  • GIMP 2.9

The Iris Nebula - NGC 7023/Caldwell 4

The Iris Nebula is a reflection nebula found in the constellation of Cepheus.  At around 1300 light years away, it's comparatively close to us.  When you trawl the internet looking for images of the nebula, it's often presented as a lovely blue colour with much darker grey or black nebulous clouds of dust and gas around it.  My hope was to at least be able to capture some of the blue colour, and possibly a little bit of detail within the dust clouds.  In reality, I think I achieved both these things with some success for a first try.  
This image is made up of:
  • 90 x 60s  exposures
  • 1500 analogue gain in Sharpcap
  • Bias, flats and dark frames processed and calibrated in PixInsight

The Elephant's Trunk Nebula - IC 1396

Another target in Cepheus was next on the list.  This time an emission nebula known as The Elephant's Trunk.  This is quite a tricky target to image, especially as it is very red in colour.  There are many clear images taken by CCD cameras all over the web, but I think that to expect that level of detail would be unwise.  So, for this image, I was happy to just find out what I could obtain with a comparability short total exposure time with a CMOS sensor.  Once I had stacked the image and performed the initial image stretch of the stack, it was obvious though that I was slightly off target.  Nevertheless, I was pleased to find that I could make out some detail of the trunk and also other areas of dark nebulousness.
This image is made up of:
  • 90 x 60s exposures
  • 2000 analogue gain in Sharpcap
  • Bias, flats and dark frames processed and calibrated in PixInsight

Open Cluster Messier 35

With 2 targets down already for the evening, Orion still hadn't risen high enough in the sky to allow me to image it through the telescope from it's position on my garden pillar.  Looking around the constellations that were visible, I decided to try a different type of target.  I chose M35 which is an Open Cluster in the constellation of Gemini.  Open clusters tend to show up well in refactor telescopes, displaying good levels of colour in the final image.  M35 is in close proximity to another cluster NGC 2158.  This was out of the field of view of the final image, with M35 comfortably filling the sensors image frame.  In the final processed image, though you can see some yellow and white stars, I failed to get anything in the blue colour.  I think this might be down to my processing skills more than the quality of the data.
This image is made up of:
  • 60 x 60s exposures
  • 2000 analogue gain in SharpCap
  • Bias, flats and dark frames processed and calibrated in PixInsight

Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula - Barnard 33/NGC 2023 & NGC 2024

At last, the constellation of Orion was high enough over the rooftops to bring it into view.  The next pair of targets are very easy to find.  The appear either side of the star Alnitak in the belt of Orion.  I have managed to capture some detail of these nebulae with a DSLR before, but only a single shot.  Those results were promising, so the target was high on the agenda of features to return to.  Easy to find, but quite tricky to image if you want to get both features in the same field of view.  I didn't realise until after stacking and the initial histogram stretch that my alignment was slightly off, only capturing a portion of the Horsehead.  What I think makes it tricky is that you have a bright star Alnitak somewhere near the centre of the frame, the Flame which shows up well in CMOS sensors and the very red area around the Horsehead, traditionally the subject of CCD images.  The Hypercam dealt with it all incredibly well though.  If only I had the image aligned to get more of the Horsehead in it though!
This image is made up of:
  • 60 x 60s exposures
  • 2000 analogue gain in SharpCap
  • Bias, flats and dark frames processed and calibrated in PixInsight

The Orion Nebula - M42

This is the target that seemingly everyone attempts to image at one point or another.  The Orion Nebula is very bright and shows up very will in all sorts of different photographs.  Though this was the target I wanted to image the most, I had to leave it until last.  Bloody rooftops!  So, as the ice was forming freely on the scope and mount, the dew band were doing their job very well and the optics of the scope were being kept crystal clear.  The internet is adorned with thousands of different images of this fantastic nebula, each representing the owners personal interpretations of the target.  I wanted to add mine to that list.  My previous attempts with my DSLR have been poor, so I was apprehensive as to how this was going to turn out.  Looking through various forums, plenty of people seem to be having great results with the Hypercam.
This image is made up of:
  • 60 x 60s exposures
  • 1500 analogue gain in SharpCap
  • Bias, flats and dark frames processed and calibrated in PixInsight


At the end of nearly 9 hours outside, occasionally nodding off in the shed in front of the fan heater with the cricket commentary on the radio, I managed to get data on 5 targets, each with their own challenges.  My first thing to work on though is the framing of the target.  I need to get used to taking some images and stretching the histogram on the sub frames to make sure I can get all the target in the field of view.
I feel as if I am now getting to grips with the process of collecting the data within SharpCap and this is now becoming a little more routine.  Images will improve in quality with more data on each target.  Next time, I'll stick with only one or two objects for the evening.  In total, it would be great to get 2 to 3 hours on each target.
My biggest improvement at this stage of the hobby will be in processing.  The use of PixInsight has brought on my processing to the next level, and there is a huge amount to learn about this software and it's routines.  I am now a fully paid up license holder of the software so I am determined to make it work to the best of my ability.
So, that's 2017 all wrapped up for me astronomy wise.  The forecast for the next couple of nights is rubbish, and the moon phase is approaching full moon.  If 2018 proves to be as productive and pleasing as 2017, I will be really pleased.  I have my first star party at Kelling Heath booked for 2018 and look forward to experiencing a different location and new circle of people.  That does mean that AstroCamp will take a back seat in Spring because the dates clash.  Nevertheless, I'm sure the dark sky of rural Norfolk will more than make up for it.
Finally, I would like to thank anyone who spends a few minutes reading my posts.  I have no idea how popular or unpopular these pages are, but I have always maintained that the primary reason for the blog is a method for me to keep track on my hobby.  If others find it interesting, great!  Bonus!
Wishing you all the best for 2018.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hypercam 183c - Sucking Up Those Photons

Hypercam 183c - Sucking Up Those Photons

Sitting in the aftermath of the news that the 183c had already been superseded by the new 183c v2, I'm still impressed with the capabilities of my Hypercam.  During recent months since I took delivery of the camera, I have written about my first steps of using it.  I've covered areas such as setting it up, getting everything to talk correctly, experimental settings and initial findings of post processing.  I've collected together a bit of experience with the camera now, and so decided it was time to bring together what I had learned so far and spend one night on one target.
A couple of weeks ago, an unexpected evening of clear skies with minimal moon interference presented itself, so I set up out the garden ready to concentrate on one target for the evening.
My chosen target was part of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus, NGC 6960, otherwise known as The Witches Broom.  It's a target that I have photographed before with a DSLR, and was also amongst the initial batch of targets I pictured using the 183c, albeit in mono colour-space format.  So far, with the 183c, I have only spent 60 minutes on any given target, and with reasonable results.  All of the images this far have been taken with unguided 60 second light frames.  I decided to stay unguided, but this time collected 2 hours worth of light frame data in RAW 12.
Initial inspection of some of the flat frames, I could see that I was getting a little trailing in stars, but for a majority everything was kept well in focus with no significant trailing.  I decided that would suffice, and that the batch pre-processing script in PixInsight would deal with and omit any bad frames.  What I ended up with was approximately 100 usable light frames.
This was ago the first time I used a UV/IR filter with the camera, so at the same time, I was also omitting some light pollution from the data I was collecting.

NGC 6960 The Witches Broom Nebula.
~100 light frames
20 flat frames
40 bias frames
10 dark frames
Captured in Sharpcap with 60 second frames and 2000 gain.
The colour has come out really well in processing, and the edges of the nebula are quite crisp.  The extra data seems to have smoothed out the background more than in previous images.  I hope that further light frames will make this better still.
The one thing that lets this image down is the centre star.  It looks somewhat bloated which happens during the initial histogram stretch.  I expect that there is a tool somewhere to remove that effect, but I haven't been able to find it as yet!

What Next?

Things are definitely moving in the right direction with my imaging using the 183c.  As a rough plan for the next session, I think I'll stick to a single target for the night again.  I seem to be able to get constant results in terms of polar alignment with Sharpcap pro, so I will continue making sure I get that part of the process nailed at the beginning.  As I've already mentioned, data is key, so I will go for 150 to 200 frames on the next target, providing it is not too bright.  This should help the background smoothness even more.
As a bit of a preamble to it, I'm going to get vncviewer or teamviewer working again so I will be able to monitor progress from comfort of the living room!  I also want to re-introduce the focal reducer to the light train to be used in conjunction with the UV/IR filter and see if I start to get the halo effect again.  We shall see!
Thanks for reading, and clear skies.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Hypercam 183c - Big Steps Forwards

Hypercam 183c - Big Steps Forwards

In my last post, I showed the results of my early attempts at DSO photography with my new Hypercam.  I think it's fair to say that the images showed the potential of the camera, but results were somewhat spoilt by this halo phenomena that was appearing around the centre of the image, and in some cases, at several points around the image perimeter.  That post sewed the seeds of a new plan of tests as a result of questions asked on a couple of forums and some emails to a few people.
I needed to keep as much as possible the same in the whole process, changing only one thing at a time.  One of the strongest suggestions was to look at omitting the Focal Reducer from the light train, so, with conditions looking favourable last Sunday, I set up all my equipment, got everything polar aligned and then fitted the camera without the FR.
May targets for the evening needed to be the same as the previous attempt, so, C19, M45 and M27.  Exposure, gain and all the other settings were kept the same.  After taking a few test light frames, I took a copy of them and put them into pixinsight to stretch the image data.  If the halo phenomena was going to be present, I would see it in this first stretch of the data.  To my surprise, and relief, I saw no sign of the halo.  I wanted to take advantage of the forecasted clear night, so I set about taking the first image run of the dumbbell nebula, after which I took the dark and bias frames too.
Still with no sign of any anomalies, I moved onto the next targets and concentrated on collecting data.  I stayed with the same settings as I wanted to prove that this first image run wasn't a fluke.  After the first 3 image runs, I decided to take one last run on a new target, M76.
There wasn't much more to the night to be honest.  Data collecting and generally keeping an eye on things.  I decided to take my flat frames the following afternoon, so I took the scope off the mount at the end of the evening, but left everything attached together.

Post data collection.

Over the coming days, whilst the clouds were preventing me from collecting any more photons, I started the prolonged task of beginning the process the data.  It soon became apparent that the simple step of omitting the FR was yielding some good results.  My first stacked and processed image was the dumbbell nebula, and I was pleased to see that there was no sign of the halo anomaly.  

Clearly no blue halo there!  I moved on to processing the data for my second image.  That was M45, which, if you see my previous post, had all sorts going on in it with light circles appearing all over the place.  This was going to be a big test of the new configuration of light train.  But I need not be concerned...

I am really pleased with this image.  The amount of colour and nebulousness that comes through from the 183c's sensor is so much more than I was ever getting with my DSLR.  I posted this image on my Twitter feed, and the number of likes and re-tweets it has got has blown me away.  I've never had so many for anything!
The next image that was processed was the final repeat from the previous session, C19.  My previous attempt at this target actually produced quite a respectable image, considering that it was the first go at photographing it.  However, it did still produce the halo effect which I managed to process out.  For this attempt, again, I kept the parameters the same in terms of data collection.  I went on and processed the new data stack and was pleased to see that again there was no sign of any halo anomaly.

My last set of data collected that night, and the final set of data that I processed from this imaging run was for M76,  A new target for not only the Hypercam, but for me also.  After one hour of collecting data, and then applying all the calibration frames, I was left with this result.  I'm quite pleased with this.  Plenty of colour and definition, although there is still room for improvement!

To get this frames correctly, I have cropped and enlarged the image slightly.  It's made the focus appear a little out, but I was happy to sacrifice that if only to be able to see the nebula a little more clearly.


Since collecting and processing this data, I have taken delivery of a new UV/IR filter which I want to introduce into the light train.  I'll add it to the focal reducer first, and see if I can image clearly with the FR and the filter in place.  If not, I will persist with the filter.  So, now I'm on the look out for some new targets to go for at the next opportunity.  I want to start taking slightly longer exposures and collecting more data on each target, so I will choose the next target wisely.  I'll be sure to post more results.  Thanks for reading!  🌙🌟

Friday, 10 November 2017

Hypercam 183c - A Work In Progress

Hypercam 183c - A Work In Progress

A few weeks have gone by, and I've had the opportunity to get out with the Altair Hypercam 183c for a decent amount of time under a reasonable sky.  I think I can now finally say that I have the process of setting up and data collection quite well refined.  I have found that as long as I stick to the same principles and spend time on the polar alignment routines, I don't really need to engage guiding from PHD2.  In my testing so far, I have been using 60 second exposures with very little, if any, signs of star trailing.  This helps me keep to the principles of keeping this as simple as I can when it comes to equipment.
In my last post, I gave some results and thoughts on the process of using SharpCap or AltairCapture as the method of choice for data collection.  Since that post, I have been quite busy away from the telescope.  Firstly, I went to an Astrophotography Course where I was able to pick up some fantastic tips when it comes to use DSLR and single shot colour CMOS cameras like the 183c.  But, perhaps the most interesting part of the course was regarding the post processing of the data.  I was introduced to Pixinsight.  An application designed specifically for astrophotography, it performs calibration, stacking, alignment and a whole host of post processing tasks.  From the demonstration I watched, I was quite impressed, so since then, I have downloaded the free 45 day full trial of the software and have since got stuck into using it.
All set up, back on the 27th October, I relocated to the garden and into the shed with the computer and all the toys on a mission to start collecting data.  I chose 3 targets for the night, and following the tips picked up from the course, and some of my own experience, I decided to use the same camera settings for all 3 targets.  They were:

  • To use SharpCap to connect to the Hypercam and collect the data.  I now think SharpCap will give the better results, especially with all the new features coming on line with SharpCap Pro.
  • To use a gain of 2000.
  • To use an exposure time of 60 seconds per light frame.
  • To collect approximately 30 bias frames.
  • To collect 10 dark frames.
  • To collect 10 flat frames. (More info on that to follow).
So far, so good, but not all was plain sailing.  In fact, after collecting all that data, and then processing in pixinsight, it was soon apparent that I had a problem.  Firstly, these are the 3 results.



The results for M27 and M45, though show promise, are overall quite poor.  Initially, C19 also had this halo effect, but I found that it was removed to an extent in processing.  Looking at the light frames, and the flat frames, the feature was apparent in each of them to one extent or another.  Of course, the act of stacking all these frames, though good for detail of the target itself, also amplifies this bright anomaly.  This had me stumped.  I couldn't figure out how this has happened, so I started to go through the process of what I had done.  I kept drawing a blank, so I decided to open it up to a couple of forums on line and ask for advice.  This is the beauty of astronomy.  I've always found that there are always people out there willing to help.  The suggestions were quick in coming and now I have a list of things to try out.  Indications are that this could be down to one of two possibilities.  Either there is excess light getting into the light train, or, a type of lens flare is happening.
Excess light may have be caused from local light pollution, and though I don't think it was particularity worse than normal, I have to remember that the camera that I am now using is much more sensitive.  A simple thing to try will be to extend the dew shield at the front of the telescope with a piece of card or similar and prevent any light coming into the OTA from the side.
A second possibility was suggested, and that was it might be down to the x0.8 focal reducer that I used in the light train.  It was suggested that perhaps the extra lenses in the reducer combined with the doublet in the telescope cause this effect at the point of focus.  This is also an easy thing to test by simply using the same process of collecting data, but leaving out the focal reducer.  This will change the field of view of the telescope, but results should be evident within the first few frames.
I have also picked up another two tips from the forum and the course I attended.  So far, I haven't used any filters in any of my imaging.  It's been suggested that a standard light pollution filter is almost mandatory, and it stands to reason I suppose.  Especially under the light polluted UK sky.  The second suggested filter is a more specific Infrared/Ultra Violet filter.  Both of which are now on the Christmas list!

Further processing.

Amongst the various posts on the forums, someone kindly took my image of M27 and processed it further themselves.  They managed to process out nearly all of the feature, although it was quite a technical procedure by the sound of it.  Here is what the image looked like afterwards.

M27 processed further by a fellow forum member on the Stargazers Lounge forum, wimvb.
So I know that my data does contain the information I want.  I also know that it is possible to cut out a majority of the error, but I shouldn't need to carry out these additional steps.  More testing to come!


Finally, flats.  Over the last couple of years, I have tried two main ways of collecting flats data.  Both utilise a white t-shirt stretched over the end of the telescope.  Previously I have used a white image on the laptop screen held over the end of the scope.  Now though, I have bought a USB powered LED tracing box which is light weight and easier to hold up over the end of the scope.  When I first saw the problems in the images above, one of the things I wanted to rule out was the quality of the flat frames I took within SharpCap.  I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with the developer of SharpCap Pro who was able to provide me with the optimum mean values I should be looking for when creating my flat images.  Fortunately, following the initial evening of data gathering, I had left the camera connected to the telescope at the same focus and orientation.  So, I was able to experiment and take further flats to introduce into the calibration process in pixinsight.  I've now been able to rule out the flat calibration files.

So, onward I go, and more trials are in the pipeline.  The forecast is reasonable for Sunday evening, so it will be a good opportunity to try out the dew shield extension and omitting the focal reducer from the light train.  Both will be able to provide fairly instant results as I should only need to take a couple of light frames.  I should be able to do a full histogram stretch fairly quickly to see if the issue is still present or not.  Keep an eye out for my results!
Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Altair Hypercam 183C Get An Outing

Altair Hypercam 183C Get An Outing

The Altair Hypercam 183C
I am the proud owner of a brand new Altair Hypercam 183c astronomy camera.  A purchase that I mulled over for several weeks after speaking to several people.  This type of camera is quite new, and a bit different from more traditional astronomy cameras.  So, how did I come to decide that I wanted one of these cameras?  Well, as followers of my blog will know, my only option for astrophotography thus far has been my trusty un-modded Canon EOS 1100D.  This has performed well for me and has given me a good taster of what astrophotography can give me.  However, I started considering something modified for AP.  At first, I gave some consideration to sending off my Canon for modification.  But the problem with this is that I would lose the functionality it gave me as a perfectly usable DSLR camera.  So, I considered a pre-modified DSLR body and found several companies online willing to sell me a brand new camera body, and carry out the modifications required before sending it to me.  This is a popular option for many people and it serves their purposes well.  Indeed, many people go through their whole AP hobby using purely a modified DSLR camera.  The issue with this solution for me, is that even though the workmanship of carrying out the modification might be covered by a 12 month guarantee, as soon as the camera is opened up and the seals broken, the manufacturer's warranty is invalidated meaning that if something else were to go wrong with the cameras operation, I would have no easy of way of getting the problem rectified.  A gamble that I was not entirely comfortable with.  Then, I come across Altair.
They have brought to market a purpose built 20mp astronomy camera carrying the pre-modified Sony CMOS chip which is often found in other cameras.  The camera housing is built ready to accept a flattener or focal reducer, or any other sort of filter components you would want to attach.  The camera also has its own fan to aid cooling of the chip during the long exposure photography that is required for DSO imaging.  On top of all this, it comes in at the same price as a brand new DSLR camera body, but the difference being, you are buying from the manufacturer or authorised dealer with all the benefits that it brings.
Once I found out about the camera, I was all too aware that these were new to market.  I needed to find out more about them.  I didn't want to fork out over £500 on something that would prove to be unsuitable.  I followed posts by Gary Palmer (world renown solar and astrophotographer) and Trevor Jones (a popular Canadian astrophotographer who concentrates on using modified DSLR cameras.)  Both of whom have taken some great images with the 183C.  Of course, the one thing they have in abundance compared to me is experience!  The more I read about the camera, the more I was convinced that this was the direction I should go in.  Before finally making the decision to take the plunge, I spoke to Neil at Tring Astronomy Centre while at North West Astro Fest.  As far as he was concerned, the camera was proving to be incredibly popular such as the reputation it was building.  So much so, they had a steady waiting list developing for these new cameras.

SharpCap and AltairCapture

When working with my DSLR, my capture software is Backyard EOS.  A very well thought out and intuitive program that allows me full remote control of all my camera functionalities.  However, this type of software can't be used with the Hypercam.  Instead, there are several different pieces of software available to capture data from the camera.  SharpCap is a popular option and is continually being worked on to take into account new drivers and new settings for new cameras.  It also has a really cool polar alignment tool to use with my guide camera.
AltairCapture is another piece of software very well supported and tested designed for using with Altair's cameras.  First impressions are that this is slightly more complex software to use when compared with SharpCap, but I'm in the process of still trying out both pieces of software to try and get some good results with the camera.

Initial Results

These results were taken using the AltairCapture software.  My first priority was to capture some recognisable images of DSO's, so I didn't concentrate too much on framing etc.  What I was able to do is apply the same principles of capturing Light, Dark, Bias and Flat frames that I do with the DSLR camera, and then use the same Deep Sky Stacker software to stack all the frames.  So, here are 4 images all taken on the night of  Thursday 21st September.  The images all had some light processing in Photoshop too.  Gain was consistently set for all photos at 20 within AltairCapture.

10 x 30 sec Light
5 x Dark
5 x Bias
5 x Flat
20 x 30 sec Light
5 x Dark
5 x Bias
5 x Flat
30 x 60 sec Light
5 x Dark
5 x Bias
5 x Flat
Witches Broom
60 x 30 sec Light
5 x Dark
5 x Bias
5 x Flat


So, my initial results are quite pleasing.  I am waiting for my next opportunity to get back out with the camera when I will take one of two options.  I will either try photographing the same objects, but through SharpCap and compare the results, or, continue using AltairCapture, but explore more of the settings that are available.  For some reason, the data I obtained using AltairCapture came out in black and white, though with adding false colour in Photoshop, I seemed to get some pretty good results.  I'm going to continue looking on the web for new tutorials for people using either piece of software to learn a bit more.  In the mean time, I have booked a place on an Astrophotography course on which I hope to learn more on these techniques.
I'll be sure to post more results as and when I get them.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Astrocamp XI - Astronomy Lite

Astrocamp XI - Astronomy Lite

Astronomy Lite.  It sounds like some sort of freebie version of a paid for app you'll find in the Google Play Store.  People who attended this Autumn's camp will know exactly where I am coming from on this one!  If not, you will read what I mean soon enough.
I was hoping to try out a video blog for this camp, but to be honest, I wasn't very good at it.  Most of it ended up on the cutting room floor, and what was left isn't worth the effort.  Good job I can still type, albeit with the occasional spelling and grammar issues.
On the run up to this camp, social media was buzzing with activity.  And from this, I could see that a fair few of my friends were already there ready to experience the uber dark skies of Cwmdu,  As it turns out, Thursday was to be a perfect night for astronomy.  I had a choice on my hands.  Pack the van and rush straight to the campsite after work, or set up at home and enjoy the opportunity to stay up as late as I wanted...
After an awesome night out under the stars on Thursday, I left for camp on Friday, excited as ever and looking forward to meeting up with friends old and new.  
If you've read my blog post on the Spring camp, or have been keeping tabs with the Awesome Astronomy podcast, you'll know that the newly installed LED street lighting through the village of Cwmdu has caused a large amount of controversy.  Following some excellent work by the Astrocamp team, plus the local councillors and Welsh government, we received some brilliant news about the lighting.  The results of which meant that an agreement was put in place to permanently dim the LED lighting by approximately 30% through the village and beyond into the National Park.  Not only this, the organising team of John, Ralph, Paul and Damien received word that the street lights across the bottom boundary of the campsite would be switched off at night, improving the situation further.  When I got to Cwmdu, this is what greeted me as I drove through the village.  Result!
But as they say, the proof is in the pudding.  Things didn't go entirely without a hitch.  Apparently, the lighting was also switched off on Friday night, before camp started.  It's just that it was the wrong lights.  Due to, shall we say, an administrative error (although who's is a closely-ish guarded secret!) lights at the other end of the village were switched off.  Nevertheless, a couple of phone calls later on Saturday night, and the correct lights were switched off bathing the whole campsite into inky blackness!  Awesome!
Still buzzing from the night before, it was a time for an overdue catch up with some friends from previous camps.  Astrocamp has a much deserved reputation as being an extremely friendly star party.  One most certainly for the beginners and the more advanced astronomers alike.  This is what attracted me to Astrocamp in particular, and thanks to it's unique atmosphere, I have made so many friends and looked forward to meeting them all again.  Friday night, the weather was a bit rubbish to be fair, but that left plenty of time to nip down to the Farmers Arms and catch up over a couple of beers and steak and ale pie.
Saturday morning, and with fellow astrocampers starting to appear on site and set up their tents, I saw yet more familiar faces coming together ready for the weekends events.  Despite the weather forecast being iffy, people optimistically started putting their scopes out on the common ready for any chance of some communal observing that became available.  This of course, included the cornerstone of the common, Bob the Dob!

It was during this afternoon, that I met the remainder of my new astro neighbours.  Carol, Karen, Karen, Callum and Mark were around me, and it has to be said, I really couldn't have wished for a better set of neighbours at camp.  
So, the astronomy itself.  Following the meet and great on the common, people carried on getting acquainted with each other before darkness began to fall.  This was to prove to be the best night of camp for astronomy, even-though stars were only visible between gaps in the cloud as and when they happened.  Personally though, I had everything set up ready to do some imaging.  This didn't prove to be a wise idea though.  As I could hear people on the common talking about things they were able to snatch a glimpse at between the cloud, I was left frustrated, unable to polar align my mount and with no chance of doing any sort of guiding.  On more than one occasion I was heard to mutter 'should have brought the dob'.  Bad decision.  I'd left the SBT Dob tucked up in a blanket and cover back at home.
Sunday.  A highlight of camp.  A day which was lined up with solar SUNday in the morning, before an afternoon at the Spiral Arms.  Unfortunately, the weather was up to its normal tricks so there was very little opportunity for any sort of solar observing.  We did still have the part of camp where the weather could do what it liked.  The Spiral Arms, the Pub Quiz, a talk and the Masters of the Universe quiz.  
The quiz is a personal favourite of mine, and though I have yet to be part of any winning team, I take immense pleasure in watching the prizes given out.  These are not ordinary prizes, and one prize is not always expected...  First prize went to a team of seasoned astronomers.  The prize was a brand new Altair 70 ED telescope and mount.  But how would a group of people make use of the first prize.  Well, this is a testament to exactly how friendly a star party this is.  An example of peoples willingness to help others.  An example of generosity.  The members of the table agreed to put names into a hat and a draw made for the ultimate winner of the scope with some selflessly not putting their name forwards, the draw was made, and the winner was left holding the prize.  In a mad series of coincidences, my astro neighbour Carol had been looking at my equipment the day before and had even showed me a screen shot of a picture I had posted on Facebook before camp.  She had been looking at it with a view of finding out a bit more about it and was stunned to find that I then set up that same set of equipment next to her when she arrived at camp.  Carol had said that she was looking to get something similar, and the previous evening we spoke about different combinations and what her possible options were.  Spooky then that Carol was left holding the prize!

Second prize were vouchers for Tring Astronomy Centre, which were distributed amongst the second place team members.  Again, selflessly, someone elected not to take their voucher as they already had everything they needed astro wise.  Finally, and in true Astrocamp fashion, there was no third place.  In fact, there was a last place prize.  A prize going to someone who though might not have scored well in the quiz, but took part to the best of their ability.  This year, third prize was a pair of astronomy binoculars and went to young Eva.
Awesome Astronomy podcaster Jeni was next up.  Jeni's research has taken her around the world to use different instruments in different locations, gathering her data and working towards her PHD.  A couple of camps ago, she had not long returned from Australia where she was working with the Huntsmen Array, and while there, learnt about the history of astronomy according to the native aboriginals amongst other things.  I really enjoyed that talk, and so was looking forwards to hearing what her latest adventure had been about.  I wasn't disappointed.  Most recently, Jeni has returned from South Africa where she carried out work collecting data identifying exoplanets, studying one in particular.  Although, don't ask me the name of it!  It sounded more like a bunch of scrabble tiles and dice had been thrown into the air and then picked up at random!  My interest was particularly peaked when she spoke about how light changes according to the phase of transition, especially how there is a detectable difference even though the exoplanet is not actually in front of its parent star.  Fascinating stuff.  Jeni if you read this, thank you!  I didn't get chance to say it personally at camp, but thank you.  I enjoyed the talk very much.
Following on from the talk, we had the much anticipated Masters of the Universe quiz where the only prize is quite frankly the only one worth playing for out of the whole day - beer.  It is notoriously difficult with often a score of only 3 out of 10 winning the quiz.  This year, we scored two thirds out of 10.  Not even a whole single point.  Yep, it was hard!
That day, it rained.  Lots.  But in between rain showers and everything else going on, I had the privilege of showing people my self made dew controller and explaining how I built it.  A simple bit of kit that all in all would cost around 10 to 15 pounds to make, compared with some available on the market costing 5 or even 10 times as much.  Astronomy has always amazed me as a hobby insomuch as everyone I have come across are only ever to glad to give you information or help you out with no expectation of reward or recompense.  I like to think that I contribute in my own way too, by doing this sort of thing.  The link to my build method is at the top of the page of this blog.
For me, Sunday night's bad weather was an excuse for me to hit the pillow reasonably early on, although I did spend some time going through processing some imaging data I had captured the day before I left for camp.  As I lay there, the echoes of people out enjoying themselves rang around the campsite late into the night.  After all, what else can astronomers do when there is no astronomy to be done?
Monday is the last full day before camp.  And, with the potential for sensible observing conditions somewhat diminished, it was my last day.  Thankfully it was dry, so, with a lazy morning and with tents drying out, I was able to spend more time catching up with people culminating in high tea on the Common.  This is another great demonstration of how friendly this star party actually is.  People from all around camp bring contributions of snacks, food and drink to share, and everyone enjoys the afternoon together.  This year, Kevin brought his guitar along with him.  A lovely Washburn electro acoustic instrument which he was only to happy to pass around and allow people to try out.  I couldn't resist!  The weather held all afternoon, even providing people with breaks in the cloud sufficient enough to break out a couple of solar scopes.
And so in reflection...  At first, I wasn't sure if I would have much to write about from this camp.  The lack of actual astronomy going on made it feel that there was something missing.  But looking back, and reading through this piece, actually, plenty went on.  After all, where else can you go and listen to someone you have never met before tell you all about a telescope restoration project he has been working, whilst diving back and forth his tent to check on a 3D printer and giving demos and printing off some replacement parts for people.  Chris, you the man!!!  As I have been thinking of what to write during today, I am aware of Jamie Carters piece published today on the Sky At Night website.  I urge you to read it.  It's great seeing what someone else's first impressions of Astrocamp have been.  And let's face it, his writing is much better than my waffle!
I have to thank primarily Paul, Ralph, John, Damien and Jeni yet again for their organisation and getting the event up and running,  It's a massive task, to do this twice a year, and knock out podcasts all over the shop and everything else it entails.  I am all too aware that events like this can become very arduous, and as they have said themselves, they'll keep on doing at as long as they keep on enjoying it.  I sincerely hope you keep enjoying it for many years to come!
I need to give specific thanks to my neighbours Carol, Karen, Karen, Mark and Callum.  A better crew of people I could not have wished for and neighbours.  Your friendliness and kindness were without boundary.  Being around fellow astrocampers like yourselves are what makes leaving site at the end of camp harder every time.  I will miss you.
And then, my thanks to everyone else who I have got to know over recent years.  I'm pleased to say in a way that there are far too many of you to mention these days for fear of missing anyone out.  You are a special bunch of people, and you are all missed.  I look forward to catching you all at another event soon.
So, I finish this post with a quote.  It might be one you are already familiar with, but I think it sums things up pretty well.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Carl Sagan 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Great Cluster in Hercules

Blogging has been sparse for the last 6 months or so.  Just not enough time to put fingers to keyboard!  But that doesn't mean that astro activities have been lacking.  The lighter nights have meant that not much time has been spent at the eyepiece or the viewfinder, but I have been busy on a couple of little electronic projects.  I'll post about those soon enough.
This time though, I just wanted to show a quick couple of pictures I took a couple of days ago of the Great Cluster in Hercules, or M13 as you might know it.  Perhaps one of the most famouse of the globular clusters, it's a popular target for visual and photography.
The night was forecast to be clear for quite a long time, so I didn't rush into taking the picture, instead trying to teach myself the arts of perfect polar alignment and drift alignment.  It did mean though that it was gone 1am before I actually got around to taking any pictures.
In the end, I took 20 light frames of 45 seconds each at ISO 1600, then stacked them with 10 dark frames and 10 bias frames.  The first attempt at processing was OK, but I did think I could get a bit more out of it with a bit more time.
The first image is the result of the first set of processing.  Version 2 of the image then shows a little more detail and sharper detail.  I've also cropped it a little better.  Enjoy, and check back soon to see what else I've been up to in the astronomy hobby recently.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Northwest AstroFest 2017 - The Place To Be

North West Astronomy Festival 2017

Heading back down the motorway towards home, I started hitting the traffic in the usual places around the ever present roadworks.  But I didn't really mind to be honest.  In fact, a couple of days later, I barely remember the journey back to Herefordshire.  You see, I was on my way home from a simply 'Unique' weekend in Runcorn.  I was on an astronomy high after a packed weekend of fun, laughter and learning.  I had officially popped by NWAF cherry, and boy did it feel good!
I had come to hear of the NWAF from my newly found astronomy family during my recent times visiting AstroCamp in the Brecon Beacons.  At the time though, I wasn't sure if it was quite for me, but I never could put my finger on why.  
Skip forwards a couple of months to the end of last year, and a trip out to AstroFarm in Confolens for a week under some inky black french skies.  Our hosts for the week were Andrew and Sue, proprietors of AstroFarm, and organisers of the North West Astronomy Festival.  During the week, both had spoken about the festival and encouraged me to consider going, even offering some dates that I might want to pencil in the diary with the message 'watch this space'.  And so the seed had been sown. 
Around 9 months later, I turned up at my hotel, a little apprehensive, but soon to join some good friends who had also made their way over for the festival.  It was time to relax and enjoy the night before the festival, meet some new people and start looking forward to what would turn out to be something quite special.
I had bought my VIP ticket in advance, and this was by way the best way to throw myself into the full experience of NWAF.  As well as getting me full admission to the festival itself, it would also grant me access to all the talks and lectures held over the weekend (7 in total), an astronomy show, an Astro Question Time session and on top of all that, entry to the Social Supper on the Saturday night.  This was one extremely packed weekend! 
The festival itself is held at the Heath Business Park in Runcorn, Cheshire.  An ideal location with lecture theater, event hall and refectory which would cater for all our needs over the weekend.  The doors to the festival opened and it was time to head to the main hall where so many different societies from the the North West and further afield had come to set up stands and stalls.  Retail stands from the lovely people at Tring Astronomy were also there, along with Astronomy Now and MSG Meteorites - yes, you could buy your own bit of Mars!

The main hall early on the first day.  Plenty of equipment to see and buy among many other stands.

Day 1 Talks

A big part of the festival for me was the opportunity to attend a whole selection of different talks.  The theme for Saturday was Women in Astronomy, and so provided the basis for the day's talks.  First up was Jane Green.  Many people I know had attended her talks before and had really enjoyed them.  Jane's talk, entitled 'Never In A Million Years' tackled the subject of the birth of our Sun, how it compares to other stars in the universe, the birth of stars and the death of stars.  The thing I took away from that talk more than anything else was her explanation of the scale of the universe, distances involved between different constellations, and even distances within familiar observable targets. 
Next talk on the list was from Hillary Harper-Abernethy who chose to continue the days theme of Women in Astronomy by talking about Caroline Herschel.  This was particularly interesting, as Caroline is often overshadowed by her brother, William Herschel.  Hillary told us of Caroline's journey through life, and her work in astronomy, both with and without her brother.  I have visited Bath many times, and walked past the Herschel museum but have never visited it.  Next time, I'd like to put that right.
In a packed schedule, the next talk was by a leading scientist in the UK, Jane McArthur, whose talk was about meteors and craters on Mars.  This was certainly a change of gear and took some concentration to understand.  Jane is so passionate about her work and research.  That certainly come through in her talk.  Her explanations on the formation of craters, and the composition of meteorites depending on the processes that created them were simply amazing.
A really nice touch to the next part of the day was a session called Astro Question Time.  A panel of all the presenters who had already spoke and were scheduled to speak the following day was put together and it was the audience chance to fire questions at the panel.  It was such a good idea and put a great emphasis on getting the festival goers even more involved.

The panel for Astro Question Time take their seats.
To round the day's talks off, Paul Hill of AstroCamp and Sirius Astronomy fame took to the lecture theater to present his famous science show.  A fun, but educational look at what makes a rocket move, what happens if you don't wear a pressure suit in space and what Tim Peake wore under his pressure suit.

As you can see, astronomy is an incredibly social hobby.  It's not all about standing outside in the cold and dark waiting for a gap in the clouds.  Indeed, this was the first astronomy activity I had been to where the weather could do whatever it wanted.  VIP ticket holders were invited back to the conference centre in the evening to take part in the Saturday Social Supper.  A simple idea and a big get together where people could join up for a few drinks, a good feed, and yet a further chance to meet new people.  A simple idea that rounded off the day perfectly which I spent sharing a table with a 78 year old gentlemen who had some tales to tell!  I'm embarrassed to say that I can't remember his name, but it was a pleasure to spend time listening to what he had to say.

Day 2 Talks

If day 1 was anything to go by, day 2 was going to be another cracker.  A check down the list of the talks for day 2 showed that this was going to be a crammed day.  Enough time to grab a coffee and chat with people from the night before, and then straight in to the days first talk.  The first of 4.
Stuart Atkinson took to the lecture theater floor, complete with gold top star trek outfit to give his talk on Skywatching - The Absolute Beginners Guide.  The Honest Version.  It was a very funny look at the hobby of astronomy.  He give plenty of anecdotes about what we, as astronomers, do, but with plenty of home truths in there too.
It very rarely happens like this. - Stuart Atkinson presenting.
The next talk was one I found particularly interesting and engaging.  I had the pleasure of a meeting Gary Palmer for the first time at NWAF, and took the chance to talk with him several times over the course of the weekend.  Gary is a world authority on solar imaging and the equipment used in astrophotography.  He brought with him several pieces of equipment, new to market which people could get their hands on for the first time.  Gary's talk was wonderfully relaxed and unstructured, leaving the audience to fully take part and guide the discussions.  Gary's time on the floor flew by.  Here is Gary looking very relaxed in front of one of his own solar images.
Gary Palmer, solar imager extraordinaire.
Half way through the days talks, and with no break in site, it was time for Dr. Julian Onions to take to the lecture theater floor.  Julian brought his talk on galaxies called Galaxies - One Gigayear at a time.  As amateur astronomers, one of the more pleasing targets to look at in the night sky are galaxies.  But they come in a huge variety of different shapes and orientations.  Julian talked about the classifications of these galaxies and how, as scientists, they like to make lists and put things in order.  There was a bit more to it than that of course.  He showed some stunning images of galaxies, including our neighbour, Andromeda.

Ever had your name spelled in galaxies?
A little more that half way through the day, and we were already on our 4th talk.  This talk was on something that I knew nothing about.  It was so interesting and was one of those talks that really inspired me to give something different a try.  Anthony Jennings came to the festival from the Manchester Astronomical Society and gave us his talk on anaglyphs and 3D photography.  As we took our seats, we were given 3D glasses to wear during the talk.  He started by inviting people down to the front with their glasses to look at a variety of anaglyphs giving us a taster of what was to come.  Using 2 very simple pieces of software, Anthony was able to show us exactly how to create 3D images using nothing more sophisticated that a standard camera.  Even, how to make 3D images of the surface of Mars using publicly available 2D images from the internet.  Not only did he show us how to create these images, but also, how to make a 3D rendering of planetary or lunar photographs.  Again, an incredible demonstration using a simple piece of software which, when configured would allow you to rotate a picture, and even look down into such things as craters of the moon.  Simply stunning, and achievable by anyone.
Turning a 2D lunar image into a 3D rendering allowing you to 'look inside' craters.
We were fast approaching the end of the day, but not having a break so far, we had a one hour break which gave people chance to go out and take part in some solar observing and get some fresh air.  What was in store was a great raffle, incredibly emotional closing remarks and news of NWAF 2018.

Available for people to use were a whole range of telescopes and solar scopes brought by members of the various astronomy societies, Tring Astronomy Centre and Gary Palmer.

Throughout the festival, everyone was invited to buy raffle tickets which raised funds for the astronomy festival.  It must be remembered that the festival is run as a not for profit event with proceeds covering it's own costs, and then being put forward to run outreach events in the Northwest.  On offer as prizes were a whole range of goodies from meteorites to mugs and tickets to Solarsphere to a break at AstroFarm.
This was my first NWAF, but it was to be the last at the forefront of its organisation for two people.  Andrew and Sue Davies.  They started the whole festival 5 years ago with the aim of bringing together people from different societies and educational groups for a celebration of an amazing subject.  Before the event started, Andrew and Sue announced that this was to be their last festival in their current rolls.  AstroFarm which is their residential astronomy business in France, has proved to be incredibly successful and consequently demanding of time.  Unfortunately, Sue wasn't present at the festival, having to remain in France and it was left to Andrew to provide the closing remarks.  In an incredibly emotional piece, it was obvious that what they were doing was letting go of something they both cared so much about.  A closing video of photographs from festivals of the past brought back some powerful memories for Andrew and his team.  Even though it was my first time at the festival, watching this was hard.  Very hard.  And what made things harder was the way in which Andrew made his way around each and every member of the assembled audience to give a personal thank you for their support.  This was truly unique.  The ovation at the end was testament to the feelings stirred within.
The festival ended on a great note with confirmation that NWAF would be back in 2018, albeit with less involvement from Sue and Andrew, allowing a committee of representatives from local societies and other people take over the reigns.

The Aftermarth

Leaving the festival was like leaving the last day of the best ever holiday.  But it was a familiar feeling, the same as happens when it's time to leave AstroCamp.  It was great to meet up with the ever expanding astro family and great to know that I would be seeing many of them again in only a couple of months time.  Now, several days after coming back to Herefordshire, I can look back and reflect on my favorite parts of NWAF 2017.  I have brought back so many memories.  From seeing Andrew for the first time since our trip out to AstroFarm and being greeted with the biggest man hug possible to attending the first talk of the festival by Jane Green.  From meeting and having the privilege of spending time talking to Gary Palmer through to learning about 3D photography.  The whole experience has been inspirational, and a complete break from normal run of the mill life.
I'm really pleased the festival is going to continue on to its 6th year, and I sincerely hope I will be able to make it again in 2018.
Finally, my own thanks.
Thank you first and foremost to Andrew, Sue and all the rest of the organising team that pulled together to put this event on.  Thanks also to Neil and Jane at Tring Astronomy for dangling brand new astro toys in front of me and whetting the appetite for my next purchase.  Gavin @pillarscreatio Vicky Bennett and Gary Palmer @Solar_Gaz it was a pleasure to meet you all.  Hope to see you again soon in AstroCamp.  To the rest of my astro friends for making me feel welcome as usual.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Astrocamp X - The Observations and Photography

As a follow up to the my previous post about Astrocamp X, it's time to put a bit more detail together on what was I managed to get out of the wonderful dark skies of Cwmdu.

Saturday 22nd April

First true night of camp and I decided to split my time a little between astrophotography and visual.  I was soon to be reminded how much time astrophotography can actually take.  I wanted to make sure that I my alignment and mount set up was as good as I could get it.
I decided on 2 targets for photography.  The first was an image in the Virgo cluster of galaxies.  Given that I couldn't get a decent visual through the 80 ED-R, it was quite hard to establish exactly what the scope was pointing at, but I took the frames anyway and would just wait until processing to find out what I had got.
The image comprises of:
  • 30 x 120 sec ISO 800 light frames
  • 10 x 120 sec ISO 800 dark frames
  • 10 x ISO 800 bias frames
  • Stacked in DSS
  • Processed in Adobe CS2

Initially, I thought I had captured no significant targets and assumed that I had missed the area of Virgo I was hoping to capture.  This was until I had more time after processing to really start looking more closely at the image.  Below is the same image, but with galaxies encircled in red.  For some reason although I used a focal reducer/flattener, the image does suffer a bit around the edges.

During the process of the images being collected, I decided to locate myself up on the common with everyone else at camp, and use the 300p SBT to do some visual.  I had compiled a list of targets that I wanted to observe.  The list was quite extensive, but I only managed to observe a few things before returning to the imaging kit.  Nevertheless, I did managed to tick of 3 new targets for me.
  • M61 - Virgo (new target)
  • M104 - Virgo (new target)
  • NGC 5466 (new target)
  • Leo Triplet of Galaxies.
Back to the imaging, and after taking the dark and bias frames, I took a look around to find the next target to image.  After seeing that the galaxy cluster was going to be tricky to resolve, I decided to go for something of lower magnitude.  As Hercules was making it's way up into the sky, I decided on M13, the Hercules Cluster.  The image was created using the same ratio, ISO values and duration of light, dark and bias frames as the Virgo cluster.

The image was processed and then cropped.  During the cropping process, I noticed that I had also captured a neighbouring galaxy.  After a bit of discussion, I was initially informed that the galaxy I had captured was IC 4617, a magnitude 15 galaxy.  It wasn't until I got back home and had a closer look that I realised that this was a mistake.  The obvious galaxy toward the bottom left corner of the image is in fact NGC 6207.  But again, the higher resolution image does actually show both galaxies.  Albeit IC 4617 is very small.

Sunday 23rd April

After the mixed results of Saturday night, I decided to concentrate solely on astrophotography on the Sunday night.  Conditions were a little hit and miss with light cloud coming through the sky throughout the evening.
My target for the evening was the vicinity around M86, again in Virgo, albeit a little further towards Coma Berenices that the previous night.  The number of galaxies in this region of the sky is simply outstanding.  Bearing in mind these are taken only with a 80mm aperture telescope, I was still able to capture and identify plenty of objects.  This image was taken using the following:

  • 32 x 90 sec ISO 1600 light frames
  • 9 x 90 sec ISO 1600 dark frames
  • 9 x ISO 1600 bias frames
  • Stacked in DSS
  • Processed in CS2

To help identify the galaxies in this picture, the follow marks out the visible galaxies picked up by the image.

At first, I was disappointed with the end result of the imaging run, but following on from the processing and identification of galaxies, I actually am quite pleased with the way in which is came out.

Monday 24th April

I left camp after lunch on Monday, although I knew it was going to be a good clear night.  When i arrive home, I set up everything for another set of imaging runs out the back garden.  From the comfort of my own garden, and knowing that I didn't have to get up for work, I settled in for a long night.
In the end, I imaged 4 different targets.  The first target was the Beehive Cluster designated M44 in the constellation of Cancer.  It's a reasonably bright open cluster and quite large.

  • 30 x 45 sec ISO 1600 light frames
  • 10 x 45 sec ISO 1600 dark frames
  • 10 x ISO 1600 bias frames
Other than the focus being marginally out, the image shows the main component stars of the cluster.
On the run up to camp, I had been reading of two comets currently visible in the UK sky.  During camp, fellow stargazers were intent on visually observing these two visitors to our solar system, and with some success it has to be said.  I decided that I would try to image these two targets.  The second target for the night, and the first of the two comets was Comet 41p/tuttle-giacobini-kresák.  It was making its way through the constellation of Hercules.

The image of the comet took on a green hue with a fairly non distinct tail just visible in the image.  To get the image of both comets, I used:
  • 10 x 90 sec ISO 1600 light frames
  • 5 x 90 sec ISO 1600 dark frames
  • 5 x ISO 1600 bias frames
The third target to be imaged, and the second comet of the evening was comet C/2015 V2 Johnson.  Again, at the time of imaging, the comet was making its way through the constellation of Hercules.

C/2015 V2 Johnson was putting on a brighter display than the previous comet, at the time displaying a single quite wide, but better defined tail.
As the night went on, I could see the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra beginning their ascent up into the Spring night sky  A sure time that Summer is on it's way!  Lyra also brings on of my favourite visual targets, The Ring Nebula.  It's a small target to observe and photograph, but it is very pretty and worth the effort.  I have attempted to image it before, but I believe the colour is much better using a refractor rather than my previous attempts.

To get this final image, I used the following:
  • 10 x 90 sec ISO 1600 light frames
  • 5 x 90 sec ISO 1600 dark frames
  • 5 x ISO 1600 bias frames
This represented the end of my imaging session, and the end of camp for April 2017.  I've learnt loads more about what I need to do to set up and get the best out of my imaging equipment without guiding.  I need to pick up from where I left off with my guiding and PHD2, a steep learning curve in anyone's book.  I've decided that I need to invest in a Bhatinov Mask to help with my focusing, and also a longer dovetail bar to try to move the scope further along the saddle on the mount.  This should help achieve better balance.
Until next time, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Astrocamp X - The Full House

Astrocamp X - The Full House

I've just come back from walking Gelert, my hound.  There's nothing quite like being brought back down to Earth and normality than a dog sitting in front of you, 3 times a day reminding you of your dog owner duties.  Once again, Astrocamp has given me a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and routine.  This one has been like a holiday to me, just like all the rest of them.  Yet, this camp has also been quite different.
I set off for camp a day early as seems to be the normal thing for so many regular attendees and pitched up mid morning on Friday to be greeted with a big hug from my neighbour Karen, and some good friends from around the site.  It's great being able to see the arrival of people and to witness camp beginning to build and get started.  Over the years, I have spent nights under the stars and nights under canvass all around the globe, yet this isn't camping as I truly know it.  With electric come the options of a cool box and the legendary slow cooker!  Not to mention the ability to keep all the astronomy toys charged up and ready for action.  With the tent and base camp all set up, it was time to settle down and let the fun begin.
Friday night was a reasonably quiet affair, with cloud cover giving no opportunity to observe, it was time to pop the Farmers Arms cherry.  In all the camps I have been to, I quite simply haven't had the urge to go.  Friday night was different though. I could sneak in a swift half or two before tea surely?  The Farmers Arms is a great little pub, but it's easy to see why Astrocamp quickly outgrew it as a location for the "astronomers in the pub" pub quiz.  I believe a popular expression heard from behind the bar when things get a little bit busy is "It's f###ing chaos!"  The rest of the evening was pure catch up time.  Thinking about people who we knew weren't going to make it to this camp, and waiting for the arrival of the rest of the camp regulars and newbies.
With my head hitting the pillow somewhere around midnight, it wasn't until around 3.30 am that some other campers quietened down enough to be able to get to sleep.  With the crows starting their dawn chatter around 5.30, it didn't make for a pleasant Saturday.  Confronting drunk strangers in the early hours of the morning isn't the way I wanted camp to start, so I just rode it out.  It was a relief to hear the next morning that I wasn't the only one in this boat  But at least the neighbours enjoyed themselves I suppose, even if they were a little inconsiderate.
Somewhat jaded by tiredness, the buzz of camp started to build quite early on Saturday.  The collection of telescopes started to be brought out into the broken sunshine on The Common.  Released from their covers and jackets, they stood glinting in the sun, tall and proud waiting for their first use of camp.  And camp HQ also sprang into life with a new look signs and camp organisers Damien, Ralph, Paul and John beginning to welcome people to Astrocamp X.  One has never seen a trundle wheel used in such authority!

So, to the weather.  Forecasts being read out and spoken about all gave slightly different opinions.  Debates on which app was better for getting the forecast correct ensued, all with the conclusion that no matter what the forecast said, nobody could influence the actual outcome.  It was with these discussions going on around camp that I took my dob up to the common to join the others.  It must be said that the dobsonion type telescope was very well represented this year.  Usually counting only around 5 on the common, this year they seemed to be most definitely the scope of choice.
In terms of actual astronomy, I wanted to keep my options open, so I had set up my 80 ED-R refractor near the tent.  This is where it was to stay for the whole of camp, and where I wanted to get stuck into a bit of astrophotography.  Equally, I wanted the option of switching to visual and be part of the experience of the buzz on the common.  Life is all about options, whether you have an option or not, whether you take the right option from all that are presented.  But sometimes, options can be a pain in the backside!  You see, Saturday night was wonderfully clear well into the early hours.  Great I hear you say.  The problem was that I wanted to do everything.  Like a child in a fairground, I wanted a go on everything, when really and truly, I should have made a call in hindsight.  Stick with photography for the night, or stick with visual.  Yet, I found myself trying to get the photography side of things going and then spend some time with the dob.  It was only a marginal success.  Yes, astrophotography did happen, but with mediocre results at best.  I captured two images.  One of M 18 in Hercules and a wider field shot of the realm of the galaxies in Virgo.  Also, visual astronomy did happen, but the list of targets observed was somewhat limited due to lack of preparation and time at the eyepiece.  On the positive side though, some new targets observed in Virgo have helped me a step further towards ticking off all the Messier objects that I have left to see.

Sunday morning.  Solar SUNday as it is designated on the agenda.  An opportunity to collectively break out the white light filters, the HA filters or the solar scopes.  It's an aspect of astronomy that you can undertake in broad daylight providing the sun is out.  It goes without saying that you should only practise it with the correct specialist equipment.  You can never put a price on your eyesight.

The Spiral Arms is the location of the much adored pub quiz and talks.  This year Paul took the helm with a prepared talk on aliens.  Well, that's not exactly true.  It was a thought provoking talk on the possibility of aliens.  This is a huge branch of science and free thinking that forms entire careers for scientists and academics the world over.  So, to tackle it in a talk lasting less than an hour is an impossible task.  But what Paul did do was to put some points forwards that got me thinking.  Starting with the creation of the universe, the timescales required to create the necessary heavy elements which go on to form life was part of the talk.  Then looking at things that could happen and have happened since time began in the form of filter events which could wipe out life in the universe.  Black holes, asteroid and comet impact even nuclear annihilation.  Paul then went onto what is possibly my favourite equation.  The drake equation.  I know, it's a bit geeky to have a favourite equation, but I find it fascinating.  Just don't end up with a result of less than 1!
Learning from the previous evenings mistake, I made the call fairly early on to stick to using the 80 ED-R for the whole evening.  So, as darkness approached and the buzz on the common started to build once again, I settled down in front of the laptop to give this imaging thing another go.  Results to come in a different post!
Monday morning.  At last,  A good nights sleep with some quality time under the stars and no other disturbances!  A seasoned astrocamper will always tell you that ear plugs are essential for a sensible wake up time, not being woken at the will of the local corvid population.  Rain.  That was the sound that greeted me when the ear plugs came out Monday morning.  So far, we had 2 out of 2 good observable nights.  Would there be a third?  The forecast and all the apps said it would be.  Alas though, as camp began to awaken to the new morning, more and more people started about their business of emptying tents and packing up.  I'm afraid to say that I was also one of those.  With the prospect of a 3rd good observable night, but with tiredness increasing, the possibility of observing for night 3 from the comfort of my own home was too great.  So, it was with apprehension that I decided to call it a day, bringing to an end my Astrocamp X.  A walk around the site showed that many pitches had already been vacated, so as I did my rounds saying farewell to my fellow campers my thoughts moved onto the journey home.  A common theme in my experiences at the end of camp is the feeling and process of change and adjustment back to everyday life.  A feeling that can take a couple of days to pass completely.
My thanks once again have to go out to the organisers of this event, Paul, Ralph, John and Damien.  It's a big undertaking, to organise and run this event twice a year.  During the last day, as more and more people have expressed their thanks on social media, a theme has emerged.  Comments such as 'the best camp yet' and 'the best star party I have been to' have been passed.  It really does say it all.
Though my camp was over in Cwmdu, I still joined my Astrocamp friends in observing for the third out of 3 nights, albeit from my home back garden.  It is this third night that gave the legendary and very rare Astrocamp Full House!  All nights of camp were observable nights.  You couldn't as for much more from mother nature when it comes to weather!

A request to the authorities in Wales.

Wales.  The place of my birth and upbringing.  Some of the best scenery found anywhere on the planet can be found in Wales.  People come from around the globe to visit Wales.  They come and use the beaches, climb the mountains, sail the lakes and paddle down the rivers.  Over the years with the decline in certain industries, Wales has turned to tourism and attracting visitors to it's little corner of the UK.  Tourism is a huge part of the welsh economy.  Wales needs tourism of all sorts.  From activity holidays for children to family staycations to attracting international visitors from Europe and beyond. In recent years, another natural resource of Wales has started being tapped into.  It's dark sky attracts people from all over the world to observe and image.  Astronomy as a hobby is now more accessible than ever before.  It is more affordable and uptake is increasing.  Wales is in competition with other dark sky areas around the UK.  From the moors of Devon to the remote forests of Galloway, stargazers travel far and wide to get access to the most pristine skies the UK has to offer.  
On the run up to the recent stargazing event, Astrocamp, held in the small village of Cwmdu, it emerged that recent lighting changes have taken place along the trunk road in the area, swapping out the old sodium style lighting in favour on more modern LED lights.  This isn't the only part of the dark sky park that has had these changes.  Indeed through Wales, towns, cities and villages have been making the change, all with the idea of saving money and energy.  This is a very admirable reason, and one that has little opposition.  But the manner in which it is being done is bringing this brilliant natural resource under threat.  To role out these initiatives without something as simple as consultation of the national park or the local residents and businesses is regrettable.  The government of Wales, it's councils and authorities need to understand the impact of such changes, running the risk of obliterating this fantastic resource and having the highly acclaimed dark sky status at risk of being revoked.  The knock on effects can be substantial for a small economy that could be exploiting this resource and becoming a country wide if not European wide centre of importance.
The deployment of this lighting, the brightness, positioning or even requirement in the first instance should all be considered before its installation.  Please talk to the residence, the national parks, the dark sky organisations that fight so hard to do their best for Wales.  There are ways in which outcomes can be reached to suit the requirements of all parties.  From reducing the height of the lampposts carrying the lights, reducing the number of lights needed, to using dimmer lights or switching them off during the quietest time of night.  There are people willing to work with you on this, not against you.