Polar scope woes, Stellarium telescope control and 1st light 2010

Posted by XTSee on 30th January , 2010

Last night/morning (Jan 29th/30th) was the first time I have been out with my C6-SGT not only for 2010, but also for a whole year (previous post explains about my pond building antics putting my astronomy on hold!).

Coming home from work the evening sky was beautifully clear, and I was in a great mood taking my dog Ben for his walk across the fields, listening to the brilliant Anjunadeep01 by Above&Beyond nice and loud on my iPod.

Earlier at work my astro mate James had showed me an article about the Moon, Mars and The Beehive Cluster in Cancer being nicely grouped, with Mars at opposition (closest/brightest, yet light takes 9 minutes to get to us!), and a Blue Moon (largest apparent diameter) and M44 in Cancer, (which is my star-sign), so in all a nice grouping to observe! (And another article about Moon, Mars and M44 Beehive Cluster).
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Koi Pond finished - Back to Astronomy!

Posted by XTSee on 10th January , 2010

Happy New Year to all my readers.

My last blog post was back in April when I had used my XT10i telescope as a theodolite measuring levels for my new pond.

Hooray - The last slab has been laid

Hooray - The last slab has been laid

Blimey, after a whole years work on our new koi pond and patio I am only just getting back to doing some astronomy. My favourite hobby has been sorely neglected during the summer months, with us regularly not finishing work on building the pond until 9 or 10pm at night after cleaning and putting tools away. And then by the time we’ve had supper I’ve been just plain too knackered to start getting my telescopes out.

Pond complete - Morning after the opening party

Pond complete - Morning after the opening party

To celebrate we had a grand pond opening party to which all our family, friends and neighbours were invited, and about 60 people turned up. This had become a bit of a community project with regular visits from people interested to see how it was getting on. Some days we had 6 people helping, lugging bricks, blocks, cement or making tea!

The stepping stones

The stepping stones

Here are the kids trying out the stepping stones, the morning after the party in November. We had lots of booze, lots of fireworks, and quite a few hangovers the next morning.

My XT10i Telescope was also the centre of attention at the party later in the evening. Lots of people saw it in the conservatory and begged me to set it up for them to  look through. They were amazed at the view of the moon, Jupiter, and Orion nebula  which were nice easy, and pleasing objects for them to see, so I felt I did a little bit for 2009 Astronomy Year!

Standing on top of the underground filter housing

Standing on top of the underground filter housing

Here are the grand-children at the waterfall and filter end of the pond. Lara is standing on top of the lid which opens up to reveal the pump house and filters, to allow maintenance on the pond filters. Behind the wall is a 500 litre  water tank which stores waste water from the pond for watering the garden.

My wife Barb, and son-in-law Brian

My wife Barb, and son-in-law Brian

Above: Brian and my wife Barb enjoying a coffee break in the sunshine, sitting on the newly created steps that lead up to the pagoda.

The pillars for the stepping stones

The pillars for the stepping stones

The picture above gives an idea of the depth of the pond, and the sturdy construction of the stepping stones. And below is the underground filter pit which houses the bio-filters, water pumps, air-pump, ultra violet clarifier, electronic blanket weed controller, sump-pump and water level float switches, and the various electrics to control it all.

Inside the pond filter pit

Inside the pond filter pit

So now that my koi and other fish are happy in their new bigger pond, I can hopefully get back to updating my XT10 website and tell you about some of the other things I’ve been doing related to astronomy.

For instance the improvements I made to my 20×80 binoculars to make them easier to use.

20x80 Focuser Key Bolt

20x80 Focuser Key Bolt

And the electronic dew controller I have built for my Celestron C6-SGT scope.

Dew Controller electronics

Dew Controller electronics

DIY Dew Controller

DIY Dew Controller

And applying the Steve Chambers long exposure mod to my SPC900NC webcam.

That’s it for now, but more details about these things very soon.

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XT10i Telescope used as a Theodolite / Laser Level

Posted by XTSee on 29th April , 2009

Just lately I’ve been too busy with a completely different kind of project for me to do any astronomy, hence the rather long delay between my previous blog post and now.

We have been completely absorbed in the evenings designing a new pond for our fish. Basically the original pond (at 400 gallons) was too small for the number of fish (golden orfe, sarasa comets, shubunkins and ghost koi) which have after 5 years far outgrown the size of pond. The biggest fish (the koi) are about 16-18 inches long, and very fat.

Also we have been wanting to create a new patio area in the garden, part of which is in a darker part of the garden, which I plan to use for viewing the night sky! Yes, a cunning plan with an ulterior motive too. :)

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Part of the design work has been to use some landscape design software (Realtime Landscape Pro) to show a 3D view of the house, garden and pond/patio area, and of course this entailed accurately plotting the levels and contours of the ground which slopes to varying heights across our back yard.

Well, since I didn’t have a laser-level or theodolite to hand, I decided to use my XT10i for a new purpose other than observing the night sky! By levelling the base carefully on level ground using a spirit level, and aligning the main telescope tube exactly horizontal using a spirit level, I was able to defocus the 9×50 finder scope (which has cross-hairs) close enough to be able to focus on a 2 metre long piece of wood held vertically, to which I attached a clearly marked tape measure, with zero point on the bottom of the piece of wood. The main scope would not be able to focus this closely, nor do I have any eyepieces with cross-hairs which are essential for accurately reading off the dimensions. The nearest I was able to focus was just within about 5 metres of the finder scope.

By swinging the telescope around in azimuth only (being careful to ensure the altitude adjustment was locked tight and the scope kept horizontal) I was able to view different parts of the garden and align it on the measure held at various places around the plot. I could read off the measurement to ground level, and so work out the different levels above the lowest (”zero”) point of the garden. Once I had these measurements I entered them into the height grid contour points feature of the software, and so plot the contours of the land in the 3D view of the garden.

With this done I could carefully plan the position and necessary level differences and heights of the new patio and pond. The pond project is well into construction, and the new home for our fish will be 2100 gallons capacity.

See - my trusty XT10i telescope serves me well in the strangest ways! And saved me the cost of buying or hiring expensive (one use only) levelling equipment. And when the patio area is finally complete I will have a better location for observing the heavens. Perfect.

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First M35 Star Cluster un-modified webcam photo

Posted by XTSee on 31st March , 2009

After my previous attempts at getting some AVI captures of the star clusters in Auriga M36, M37, M38 and M35 in Gemini, with my webcam (which is not yet modified for long exposures) with my C6-SGT, this picture of M35 was the best out of them, although I admit it still pales in comparison to what could be achieved if the webcam were modified to allow longer exposures. (Click for full size).

M35 Cluster

M35 Cluster

The other footage of the Auriga clusters were not really bright enough, so did not make the grade!

Even in the above shot, only the brighter stars have come through, with the bulk of the cluster just too dim to have made any impact at such short exposure times. I used 5fps, and 1/25th sec exposure, with maximum Gain, and Gamma brightened slightly, and about 100 frames stacked. Then processed in K3CCDTools to align, stack and enhance, followed by further post-processing in Photoshop. I know I have overdone the Unsharp masking and curves, etc. resulting in a bit of a cartoony pic, but this was necessary to make the result worthwhile and get rid of the background noise, and I consider it more of an exercise in understanding the capabilities of the webcam as it is.

I was surprised to see the colours come out, and the two red stars helped me identify which part of the cluster I was seeing in the photo.

So the lesson learnt is that it certainly is possible to grab a cluster, but if I am to expect better photos, my SPC900NC webcam needs to be given the Steve Chambers long exposure mod. Good, it all adds up to more experience, and makes me appreciate the limitations of the gear I have, and a better understanding of what the next step must be.

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New Moon and M35-M38

Posted by XTSee on 29th March , 2009

The new Moon and a reasonably clear night tempted me this evening to setup the Celestron C6-SGT, but with the Moon low in the sky, and between buildings it was a race to get setup in time before it sank below the rooftops. My intention was to setup the scope’s Goto with the serial link to the laptop, and to have a go at using the Virtual Moon software to identify features, and also use it to control the goto of the scope to target items of interest.

I managed to get a brief viewing of the terminator under manual control, with my Hyperion 13mm cranked up to maximum magnification with both its fine tuning rings, plus a 2xBarlow, but I only managed to observe it for a few minutes before she disappeared behind the roofline. Damn.

So I gave up on the Virtual Moon idea, and turned my attention to seeing if I could take up where I left off a few nights before experimenting with using the Webcam plus focal reducer to capture some footage of less bright objects, so as to understand what the limitations of the un-modified webcam would be.

I attempted to view some of the star clusters in Auriga (M36, M37 and M38) and Gemini (M35). I was pleased to get the focal reducer focused on them, but it was quite difficult getting the webcam settings sensitive enough to pick up the clusters. I have taken some footage of each cluster, and content with that I packed up for the night (work tomorrow!), and will see what I can tease out from the captures with K3CCDTools in due course.

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Moon Mosaic using a Focal Reducer - almost!

Posted by XTSee on 22nd March , 2009

Quite a while ago I bought a 0.8x Focal Reducer for my XT10i telescope in the hope that I would be able to obtain a wider field of view when taking astronomy pictures with my SPC900NC webcam.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get the damn thing to focus, even with my Low-Profile Crayford Focuser. It may be just that I need to get an extension tube to increase the focal length, or it might be that the focus is actually shorter than the crayford can go even at its minimum. Not sure really.

So for a while the reducer went unused.

However now that I’ve got a C6 SGT XLT as my second telescope I’ve been waiting for a decent night for viewing, and one evening when there was an almost full Moon I thought it would be an ideal easy target for understanding how to use the focal reducer.

Obviously the first thing to do was get the scope setup, and focus in the normal way with the webcam. With this achieved, next I added the focal reducer to the equation, and then tried focusing.

I was amazed at how many anti-clockwise rotations of the focus knob I had to turn! It needed about 5 full turns before it eventually came to focus, and then I was able to see how much more of the moon the view now covered using the reducer.

Since everything was now setup, it made perfect sense to attempt my very first moon mosaic, so I got the best focus I could, made the best adjustment with the webcam for its various settings; gain, white balance, brightness, gamma, FPS and shutter speed, and then went about making a number of 10 second video captures, repositioning the scope target to take the whole surface of the Moon, allowing some overlap from one image to the next.

Or so I thought!

Moon Mosaic Mistake

Moon Mosaic Mistake

Back indoors I processed each individual capture using K3CCDTools, being careful to try and use the same settings and enhancements for each AVI movie, and then using Photoshop I set about importing each image and overlaying and aligning them, making adjustments to the levels of each image to make them match up as best as I could.

Of course I didn’t realise until I had done this that some big moon mouse had taken a hefty bite out of the cheese. Bugger it, I really thought I had it covered, so to speak.

You live and learn. I’m quite pleased with the level of detail, but I think there’s a few things I need to improve for the next time. The white balance seems incorrect as the colours of the Moon don’t seem right, although this might have been me overcooking some hue/saturation settings in Photoshop. Also I could use some gaussian blur at the edges of each image to give a smoother transition from one to the next.

Click the image to see and zoom into the full size picture.

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Saturn - one year on

Posted by XTSee on 21st March , 2009

The last time I took some pictures of planet Saturn was 1 year ago in March 2008. How time flies when you’re waiting for weather good enough to get the telescope out!

In fact these latest pictures were taken with the same webcam, but now with my new Celestron C6 SGT telescope.

Saturn - Rings almost edge-on

Saturn - Rings almost edge-on

You can see several photos from the same observing session on my Astrophotography Photos of Planet Saturn page, demonstrating the the stages of different pre and post-processing techniques using K3CCDTools or Registax and Photoshop to improve on the basic images.

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Comet 2007 N3 Lulin

Posted by XTSee on 1st March , 2009

Hooray, I saw Comet Lulin tonight at last! First in my 20×80’s to see if I could locate it, then setup the XT10i and used my 38mm SWA EP to get a nice view of its fuzzy body. Using averted vision and moving my eye around the view I could clearly make out its faint tail, which was quite long. I would say I could make out 10 times its width in tail length.

Next I swapped to a 10mm EP, and watched very carefully to see Lulin’s position relative to two others stars. Over the course of 5-10mins I watched the comet move from an acute angle with the two reference stars, until it made a 90 degree angle, then became an obtuse angle. At this higher magnification I was just able to make out the brighter core of the comet.

It’s fascinating to actually be able to make out the movement in such a short space of time.

Also in this observing session I took in Saturn, its rings I can make out even though they’re almost edge on, and even in my 38mm SWA! The Beehive cluster, and M65 and M66 in Leo.

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How to clean and restore old binoculars

Posted by XTSee on 26th February , 2009

Clean 10x50 Binos

Clean 10x50 Binos

I’ve just finished writing an article on how I recently renovated my favourite pair of very old 10×50 binos, which had become very stiff and difficult to operate, so that the focusing knobs were much smoother to operate, and so this has now made the binoculars an absolute pleasure to use.

Focusing is now feather-light whereas before cleaning an re-greasing the moving parts, it required too much effort and pressure to rotate the focuser knob, and the Diopter focuser. This would result in small shaking or vibration of the binos while I was holding them, which in turn made judging the sharpness of focus more difficult.

You can read the article on my web site here:-

How to clean/renovate/regrease an old pair of 10×50 Binoculars

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Review of Rigel Red-dot Finder Scope

Posted by XTSee on 7th February , 2009

Recently First Light Optics inadvertently delivered two telescopes to me, which was quite amusing, but needless to say I did the right thing and returned one to them.

But as a thank-you for being honest, FLO very kindly sent me a freebie to use with my new C6-S telescope, and asked me what I thought of the gadget.

Rigel QuikFinder Introduction

It’s a red-dot finder scope from Rigel which is apparently a fairly new finder scope on the market. I already own a red-dot finder that I got for use with my XT10i newtonian-reflector telescope, but that one was the ScopeTekNix Multi-LED Reticule Reflex Red-dot Finder that I purchased from Scopes-n-Skies. So I already had a similar type of finder to make the comparison with.

Rigel QuikFinder Red-Dot Finder Scope

Rigel QuikFinder Red-Dot Finder Scope

My first impressions of the Rigel QuikFinder when I opened its box was that it seemed rather “plasticky” (click picture for larger image), but this was because my ScopeTeknix finder is CNC machined black anodised aluminium, which looks and feels a more professional product than the Rigel, and so I wondered about the durability of the Rigel finder. It looks functional and appears to be fairly rugged.

Constructed of plastic does however mean that the Rigel is very light, so has little effect on the balance of your scope.

The price of the Rigel is very similar to the ScopeTeknix, which surprised me too. I get the impression that your money is going on the electronics, rather than the solid engineering of the ScopeTeknix.

Mounting

The unit is supplied with two baseplates so that you can attach a mount onto two seperate telescopes and swap the finder between them which I thought was a nice touch. Attaching and removing the finder from the baseplate is quick and easy, yet the clipping action is good and firm when in place, and the finder does not move at all, essential once aligned.

Some double-sided contact adhesive strips are supplied to allow the baseplate to be fixed to the telescope, but each baseplate also has a single central screwhole for mounting. I used one of the mounting screwpoints already provided on my C6-S telescope to fix the baseplate, and found that it needed tightening reasonably fast to hold the baseplate firm as otherwise it might rotate when attaching or using the finder.

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