Vacation on Mars

This is the first day of a short vacation, and I spent part of the night observing Mars. The sky was clear, but there was heavy dew towards dawn, and my finder — without a dew heater — fogged up badly. Still, a very enjoyable night. Looking at the results of combining images taken through the FLT-110 and a 5x Powermate with the 20D it is clear to me that for planetary work I need to locate a decent webcam. This is the net image (a stack of four) after discarding all the blurs and shimmies, together with the best single image out of 42 captured:

Mars, evening of July 28/29Single frame of Mars, evening of July 28/29

I’m not unhappy with it…but I want more (not so much aperture fever as focal length disease).

I also tried the Lumicon Deep Sky Filter, and while I was gratified by the extent to which it cut through the sky fog, I couldn’t make a decent evaluation of the Canon + filter combination – I ran out of space on my CF card. Gotta buy more!

M57 – taking what I can get….

Let’s begin by saying that I know this image is based on a flawed series of captures. The alignment was slightly off, and I idiotically decided I could fix it without stopping the whole sequence and re-aligning the mount properly. Things went rapidly downhill, and all of the stacked images show some motion in right ascension, declination, or more usually in both.

But how much can be recovered from the images even with the flaws? I’ve cropped the images down to a 400-pixel square section of the original and aligned them so you can see how far I managed to get.

Roll your mouse over the caption below the image to show other versions of the Ring…

M57 area single frame

ROLLOVER –> 28-frame stack; pushed a little; pushed, with text

The single frame shows lots of sky fog due to the moon and the city, but the 28-frame stack makes it possible to remove the sky fog to show the Ring Nebula alone. By pushing levels and accepting a little more noise it is possible to see even more details. In the labelled version of the pushed image, some of the stars are labelled with the magnitudes shown in Starry Night 4.52, and the region of IC1296 (a distant galaxy) is circled.

With more and longer exposures and a corrected alignment, much of the detail in the pushed image would move to the main stack, and details lost due to the processing required to adjust for the motion blur would return. Even though M57 is a small object at the FLT-110’s prime focus, it returns a good reward for time invested.

Looking around

At the end of each observing session I park the scope and put everything away. Here’s some quick views of the surroundings and the interior:

Exterior view

The door is ajar as the main light streams out across the garden. Note the light on the building across the way. It’s almost always on at night, so the walls of the observatory have to be high enough to shield it from view.

Scope in park

The scope is left in parked position during the day, with Telrad in place but all other attachments removed.

Observatory interior

More Ring shots….

I tried to image the Ring Nebula again on Friday night, and managed to completely screw up the alignment. I noticed a bit of motion in the test image and figured I was slightly out of alignment still, so I tweaked the east-west settings. That made things worse, so I tried again – all without looking in the eyepiece, just using the image as captured. I had forgotten about periodic error, so the initial glitch may have been a movement due to that, and from there everything went downhill.

Even so, I was able to capture the Ring and stack the images, and with a lot of help from Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen filter I managed to recover the central star of the nebula. Alas, IC1296 was much more difficult to capture, and I see no trace of it in this rather over-enhanced image:

Over-enhanced Ring

I’ll get back to the Ring — and IC1296 — when I have recovered the alignment, and perhaps after I pick up some sort of filter to combat sky fog and light pollution. Fixing the orange overlay on my images seems to result in incorrect colours.

In the meantime, I also captured another series of M3 images (12 x 60s):

M3 with auto curves

Flashing red

I finally relocated my reticle eyepiece, which apparently went for a walk when I changed my observng setup last year. Of course, at that time it was all set up for use with the Meade mount, which had support for the illumination built-in. The G11 has nothing like that, so I’ll have to come up with a workaround. The illumination is provided by a small LED set into the side of the eyepiece, and can be removed/replaced, so that’s one option. Alternately I can build a small power supply out of bits and pieces from my junk box and try running with that.

In the meantime, the cross-hairs are invisible in the eyepiece without some external light source, so Tuesday night saw me with a highly throttled down (by virtue of a tight fist!) LED flashlight aimed into the eyepiece while I tried centering Mars in the cross hairs. As a long-term procedure it bites, but for an “emergency” situation it was workable. Despite being intermittently blinded by the light whenever the flashlight escaped my throttling grasp, I managed to true up the scope alignment to a considerable degree, but the clear sky didn’t last long enough for me to test it out on an image. I’ll get to that, hopefully Real Soon Now.

I still need some form of guidance, and I’m leery about off-axis use with a small refractor. I’d rather put together a separate OTA paired with the FLT-110 along with some sort of webcam or similar imaging solution. In this application the separate OTA could be a lower-quality scope, so perhaps I can take a cheap department store scope and cannibalise it to create a guide scope. Hmmm…..

Something Completely Different

I first ran across Elizabeth Moon a few years back when her series The Deed of Paksenarion was released. That told a powerful story which went beyond the coming-of-age genre to which I thought at first it belonged. Her latest novel, The Speed of Dark, is a good attempt at a different genre. I was at first much impressed with the book. The liner notes compare it to Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, and the comparison is not inapt for the early part of the book. Whether the picture of the internal life of an autistic man is realistic must remain a matter of debate, unless of course a treatment for autism ever becomes a reality, but the picture Moon presents seems right, and her protagonist, Lou Arrendale, is emotionally engaging. It feels right.

However, the plot line fails to hold my attention, and there is an unfinished feel to the work, as though Moon’s ideas dried up and she had to finish it quickly. The resolution is quick, painless, and ultimately unsatisfying. The last quarter of the book fails to fulfill the promise of its beginnings – but I expect I will reread the book for those beginnings, if only to see if they still have appeal, knowing where the story fizzles to its end.

Not all that great photographically….

A visual bleah, yes, but not all that great photographically either, due to a persistent red glow which didn’t really fade until about 3.30 am (by which time I had already started to pack up). I continue to fumble with my current arrangement – the lack of a reticle eyepiece is showing up in the failure to align the scope properly, which also points up my laziness in not getting the eyepiece modified for use with the new setup. It worked with the old Meade mount, but since I wasn’t doing much in the way of imaging it wouldn’t have mattered much to me if it didn’t. Now I’m paying the price for not working on technique when I had the chance. Oh, well. I did capture M3:

M3 small

I’m limited to 20-second captures due to the alignment problem, and the fact that I have no guider in any form. In fact, while I could see M3, I wasn’t sure whether I had a lock on any of my other targets for the night, and failed to capture any of them to my satisfaction. Roll on to the next [semi-]clear weekend!

Visual bleah

I thought I’d try a visual observing session for tonight. The sky was good for an urban evening, though still with the usual light sources around the observatory. My neighbour’s yard lights are still on as I write, and won’t go off until around 1 am, and more distant house lights — so-called security lights — won’t go off at all. The observatory walls shield me from much of that, and right now the major light source is the screen I’m using to enter these notes. However, when that’s turned off I am still not in deep darkness.

I made up a list of Messier objects. M57 was a pale and ghostly ring, but as for any of the others, no joy in seeing them — the background haze has swallowed them all. Visually the night is a bust.

Dewy stars

After the distressing news from London earlier in the week I decided to escape to some extent by working on my scope alignment. The G11 mount has a setting which helps you to correct a bad alignment. I messed it up initially and made the alignment even worse, but finally I was able to bring the alignment back into synch with both the sky and my location, and I can nowat least put a star in the field of view. I’m still off by quite a bit and won’t be photographically sound until I can drift align, but my reticle eyepiece is dark at the moment, so the alignment will remain flakey for a bit longer. The dew has chased me back indoors now though — my Telrad finder is soaked, though the main scope itself is still viable. Stars down to about magnitude 3 at the zenith with good seeing, but very rapid deterioration with lower altitude. The steady air seems to go with the heavy dewing. Sigh.

Not in ourselves, but in our stars,…

News that a Russian astrologer is suing NASA for $300 million because supposedly NASA’s Deep Impact probe has disturbed her astrological calculations fills me with dismay. It’s bad enough that people look at the trash in the papers, but at least when you catch someone reading their horoscope there they have the grace to look embarassed and say that it’s only entertainment. This person is either a bold and bare-faced fraud looking for publicity and, perhaps, a “go-away” payment, or a sincere and totally misguided imbecile. Either way, she’s getting press space and air time which could be used to better purpose.

A little more detail — she apparently sued in one court, had the case thrown out, and then her lawyer shopped around for a court that would take the case. Eeeeevil!

And here’s another take. Actually a series of takes, as you go down the comments, some of which are hilarious. Apparently the universe has a Master Plan (can’t prove it by me!) — but somehow human actions aren’t part of the Plan. ‘Nuff sed.