My Life as a LASer, or Becoming a Star Geezer by Jo-Ann Kamichitis

May 28th, 2011

Back in my 20’s, I used to tell my pals that I planned to become an eccentric old lady, so I needed to develop some quirks. Some of said pals would quickly point out to me that I was well on my way and I merely had to choose which one or two of my existing quirks I should concentrate on.

I finally decided on becoming a star geezer (AKA a long-time observer).

Geezer (geezerette?) or not, I have tried to avoid being too firmly entrenched in my observing style and opinions about equipment. This has been a struggle since I now own telescopes that are older than some of my observing buddies! What can they possibly tell me that I don’t already know? Plenty, as it turns out.

I bought my first scope in 1967. Although I craved one of those Unitron equatorial refractors you’d always see on the back cover of “Sky and Telescope” (especially tantalizing at Christmas when they’d always show it in front of a Christmas tree, with a huge pink bow tied around the tube), I bought instead a Criterian RV-6, 6″ f/8 Newtonian on an electrically driven German equatorial mount, with a 9X30 finder scope. I spent months reading catalogs and ads, trying to get the perfect combo of features, price and aperture. At a cost of $194.95, it was the first thing I ever bought on time payments. No credit cards yet, I got a coupon book to mail back my payments over 6 months,. I just couldn’t squeeze out another $90 to buy the RV-8 I lusted after.

Well it turned out that I want the thrills of observing not all the fussing around with equipment. I never polar-aligned the scope (OK maybe I did twice in the 25 years before Joe redid the scope as a Dobsonian for me) and when I sold the mount I wasn’t even sure the drive even worked, since I’d never plugged it in.

Luckily, my interest astronomy was lifelong so I persisted with the hobby even with that dinky finder scope, those teeny field lenses in the oculars that came with the scope and the neighbors who would turn on their porch lights or call my dad when they heard Diane and me prowling out there in the yard. “It’s only the girls”, Pop would say to those who feared Peeping Toms in the neighborhood. My sister and I were old enough to not be embarrassed out of using our scope, the way our baby brother had been for a few of his early teen years.

Diane and I joined the LAS in December 1970, with the idea that we’d actually participate in the activities. We’ve “paid” for that plan over the years by each of us holding every office at one time or another, except for Junior Vice President. We’ve been repaid for that plan by getting to see some great things that we might have missed otherwise and meeting a slew of interesting and nice people. Other benefits to me have been getting a nice part time job at Keystone College’s observatory and meeting my husband Joe, at the January 1980 meeting.

What I’ve enjoyed most is observing in groups. For one thing, the howls of coyotes aren’t nearly as nerve wracking when you’re in a clump of people. Neither are the sounds of other things going bump in the night. Beyond the cameraderie though, you get to try out other equipment before you buy anything. (Hmmm, maybe a GO-TO system isn’t “all” bad.) (Hmmm, maybe spending big bucks on eyepieces is a good idea!) Ethos eyepieces though? (Hmmm maybe I’ll just look through Orlando Gonzales’s). Just watch out for competitive observers like Jim Waltich.

Even better you get to pick people’s brains about observing tricks.It’s only since say 1995, that I’ve started to use higher power on deep sky objects, although the combined efforts of Cindy Krott, Dave Barrett, and Wendy Kazmierski still haven’t gotten me stacking Barlow lenses. Jim Spangler has managed to get me using my ZOOM eyepiece on things other than the moon and planets. Now I seek just the right combo of magnification and field-of-view for the most pleasing and detailed image.

Although I still MUCH prefer my 13 inch and 18 inch scopes, I have actually been using my smaller scopes to try for things. Cindy and her Televue Pronto convinced me that even the smallest scopes can show a lot more than I had thought. So I try using them on objects now that I never would have thought of before. Which no doubt is why the best view of the North American Nebula I ever had was on a great night using my 22 mmm Panoptic in my Astroscan. The best view of the California nebula I ever had was on another great night using my 8 inch. (Hmm great skies in both cases … no wonder I loved Cherry Springs State Park so much … and Stellafane).

From Mark Thomas, I learned that I have to somewhat control my thrill seeking and actually spend time looking carefully at such things as M61, using various powers. Mark also instigated the 15 minute rule, to curb some some of the socializing among some of us on truly good nights. You can’t spend more than 15 minutes between looks into an eyepiece on a good night. I think we have to reinstate that rule since good clear nights have been so rare these past several months. If Jim Waltich ever gets the time to observe again, we will really need that rule.

From Larry Peoples I actually got to see the charm of a GoTo system; from Dave Barrett, I’ve gotten back into marking the really good objects on my star charts (although I’ll never adopt his constellation figures). Don Murray has shown me the beauty of a good double star, while Joe Dukantas illustrates the value of a red observing hat and has sold us some of our favorite scopes.

John Sabia, much as I make mock of his gushing over every little meteor and faint comet, has gotten me to train my eye to really see detail on the moon and the planets and has helped me keep my observing enthusiasm high. I still can hear him yelling “Don’t unpack your car just get over here!” the night we got to see the 3 biggest impact spots on Jupiter. Not to mention the night, he and I dashed from the car into the classroom building trying to hustle a college class out to see the really great red auroral streaks that we had been looking at on the drive up. I can still see them looking at us dubiously and glancing at Tom Cupillari, to see if he thought we were just a couple of kooks, before they followed us outside. The aurora, by the time they got outside, had subsided to just some pulsating patches. Too bad their mothers had trained them so well not trust strange strangers.

Bill Speare may still gripe that it’s not worth owning a scope in NE Pennsylvania but I wouldn’t have ever tried a solar eclipse expedition without his experiences as inspiration. My success rate is 2 out of 4, and holding. I would never have seen Winnepeg in February, or Hawaii or Australia or New Zealand  without the excuse of an eclipse. Now I also get to vicariously travel to eclipses with the spectacular powerpoint shows that John Mudrian does after each one he tries to see. Finally someone who takes as many travel photos as I did (maybe even a lot more)!

I’ve been able to watch TGC Observatory develop from the beginning. What a break it was that Tom Cupillari wanted to get that 9 inch Clark refractor and dome from Dave Garroway, and he had the ambition and the skills to get the money and support for the observatory. Now that my back yard is so useless for observing the facility really means a lot. What with digital cameras and the bigger newer scopes (20 inch dob, 20 inch RC, easy to use go to 10) even I get some decent shots of the moon and lesser shots of the planets. So much better than the no shots I had with film cameras.

There have been some really memorable observing nights at TGC Observatory. A short (and way incomplete) list would include: the Leonid meteor storm of 2001; the 2004 transit of Venus; Comet Hyakutake stretching way across the sky; Comet Hale-Bopp the next year putting on a grand show; watching Saturn occult a star one year, then years later watching the moon occult Saturn; seeing M51 look all fluffy in Dave’s 24 inch scope; seeing NGC 7331 surrounded by a batch of smaller galaxies in the RC 20; Mars at it’s closest approach in 2003, with the 4 clear night full of mobs of public; in 1985, the state police coming in with bull horn telling folks (who had waited in lines for hours to see Halley’s Comet) to move their cars off the state road  … well you get the picture.

Thanks a lot Tom.

I’ve also had a lot of fun at the State Park Star Parties that we started under Joe Kamichitis’  first LAS administration. You even find that you even have regulars at the parks and at public nights at TGC Observatory.  John Nallin has been a great assistant … watching the scopes and reminding me to start with M13 or M27. My sister wasn’t quite as good at that although she and her kids used to be really good at blocking out car headlights, campfire lights, and the moon from the eyes of the observing public.

In addition there are many varieties of star geezer you can become. Get to know your personal limits. Just show the constellations to kids (only equipment needed is free star maps from online and a laser pointer just for you, the astro jedi adult). Be more technical if you want. Here are my limits. Serious astrophotography? After looking at what Steve Walters does, I know I am out of my depth.  I’ll just stick to tripod mounted camera astrophotography and casual through the telescope photography with my point and shoot hand held camera. Do serious research? Mike Peoples’ work with Tim Pucket on supernova searches in other galaxies, sounds like too much work. Just remember that the hobby of Amateur Astronomy can encompass every level of interest and expertise. Feel free to be an armchair or WW astronomer. Specialize in cosmology and string theory! There is room for everyone!

Near as I can figure out becoming a Star Geezer is easy , and it keeps you from becoming a crabby geezer!  In fact I’m usually on one of my astronomy highs, whether at the observatory, at state park star parties, and now the First Fridays in downtown Scranton. Astronomy keeps you young in mind so you don’t give off an actual standard geezer vibe. You want to show kids the moon and planets in your telescope, instead of chasing them off your lawn. Being “odd” saves you from becoming that cliche crank.

A Newbie’s Adventure in Astrophotography: Part 4

April 6th, 2011

Imaging with a wedge requires a bit more effort during setup, but you can only do so much in Alt-az.  Rather then just dropping the scope into the tripod, and locking it down, the wedge holds the scope at an angle facing Polaris.  This is called polar aligning, and it is something that doesn’t have to be done with an Alt-az telescope.  It is one of the reasons that Alt-az mounts are a good idea for beginners.  Equatorially mounted telescopes have to be aligned on Polaris before you can do any observing or photography.  Alt-az can be aligned on any star or stars.  What Polar aligning does is allows the telescope to track the stars on only one axis.  A poorly polar aligned scope or Alt-az will begin to show rotation in the corners of a long exposure image.  While this may not bother a beginner, as you progress, field rotation as it’s called, becomes the enemy.  What this means, is you spend more time setting up and making sure you’ve got perfect alignment before attempting to image.   The wedge added 20-30 minutes to my setup routine.  It also makes it tough to do a full daytime setup.  I still have to wait to see a star before aligning my telescope.

M27 - The Dumbell Nebula

Since I purchased my telescope, Celestron has offered a firmware update that allows me to polar align on any star, not only Polaris.  This feature is called All-Star alignment and it is great!  This means I can get a head start on my alignment, and can align on any of the bright stars, not just Polaris.

Imaging on a wedge improved my images to the point where I could get 1 minute exposures without trailing.  That was all well and good, but I was only a single, but expensive upgrade away from having a full auto-guiding setup.  I purchased a new refractor telescope as well as rings and a counterweight system.  I also purchased an Orion Starshoot Autoguider.  An auto-guider locks on a single star and guides the mount as it tracks the sky.  It smooths out any bumps in the mount and allows you to image for very long periods of time.  I’ve currently pushed it up to 10 minutes before it shows any trailing.  This does require perfect polar alignment, but it also improves your images considerably.  I’ve posted some of my most recent images with my newest fully guided setup.

leo-trio-labeled

Coming off a spending binge on astrophotography, I now have a serious imaging rig.  While some may not quite look at a fork mounted telescope as a perfect imaging setup, it is stable, has good optics and outperforms many GEM style mounts.    At this point, my photographs are only limited by the darkness of my skies, and the effort I’m willing to put into them.  In future posts, I’ll go into some of my techniques and tips.


A Newbie’s Adventure in Astrophotography: Part 3

November 29th, 2010

So I’ve successfully taken my first Moon photograph, and was looking to go deeper.  At the time, Saturn was high in the sky and I decided to try to photograph it.  I took a few exposures and also learned something.  You can get a much better view of Saturn through the eyepiece.  As it turns out, my DSLR wasn’t the optimal camera to use to photograph planets.  Since then, an number of hardware and software advances make it more possible, but at the time, I chose to move on.

Photographing deep sky objects is nothing like Moon or even planet photography.  Deep sky photography utilizes multiple long exposure photographs.  That is while the mount continues to track a target, the camera opens the shutter and holds it open for a specified duration.  That means a lot is going on while imaging, of course the mount and camera do most of the work.  This fact will allow you to automate the most tedious aspect of the process, so most of the effort goes into the setup.

The first thing you have to do is get the camera focused.  If the Moon is up, you can focus on that.  The same with a bright planet like Jupiter or Saturn.  But your next best option is a bright star.  My camera, the  Canon XS, has live view.  Live view allows you use either the LCD screen on the camera or a laptop computer as the viewfinder.  With live view, you can zoom in on a bright star and turn the focus knob until the star appears to be a pinpoint.  This allows you to get very close to perfect focus.  That said, only the 10 or so brightest stars will be visible on the screen, so don’t expect to see what you would see through the eyepiece.  When it comes to Live view, it is a focus aid and no more in regards to deep sky photography.

A Bahtinov Mask is a handy tool for achieving perfect focus.  My focusing routine went from being a 20 minute affair to less then a minute.  It also gave  me better focus which resulted in more attractive stars.  You can download a template to make your own Bahtinov mask or purchase it at Focus-Mask.com.

My first Deep Sky photograph was of M3 a globular cluster(top right).  Globular clusters are the best targets for newbies.  They are bright, Looking back, my results weren’t terrible, but they weren’t anything to write home about.  Needless to say, I was ecstatic about my results, and was hooked.

I considered myself lucky the first few days I had the telescope.  The weather held out, and I got to use it before the clouds rolled in a couple of days later.  This is another aspect of the hobby that can sometimes be frustrating.  For visual observing, partly cloudy skies can still provide for an eventful outing.  For astrophotography, clouds are a no go.  So I found myself checking the weather and hoping for clear nights.  These days I use the Clear Sky Clock on the top of the page, and it has proven very reliably and handy.

The Telescope I use, a Celestron CPC-800 is on an Alt-Az mount.  What this means is that the telescope tracks the sky on two axis.  This is unlike an equatorial-mounted telescope which tracks the sky on a single axis revolving around the star Polaris.  For deep sky astrophotography,  an equatorial mount is optimal.  That is not to say you cannot get nice images photographing in Alt-Az, but an equatorially aligned mount will allow you to take longer exposure photographs.  The limit in Alt-Az would be around 30 seconds otherwise, images show field rotation.  This is the biggest limitation of Alt-Az mounts when it comes to astrophotography, but there is a simple solution.  An equatorial wedge allows you to equatorially align an Alt-Az fork mounted telescope like the CPC.

I purchased the Celestron HD Wedge.  Now I could push my exposures a bit further.  In Alt-Az, I was getting 20-30s exposures.  At this point, I am able to go 45s without showing any trailing stars.  My pictures are improving, but I know I still have a way to go before I’m going to be framing them.

A Newbie’s Adventure in Astrophotography: Part 2

November 12th, 2010

One of the first things you realize when doing astronomical observing is that the objects you are looking at don’t look like the photographs. You rarely see color, mostly just faint fuzzies.  But by using long exposure photographs you can bring out more details then you could hope to see with even the best telescope.   While the faint fuzzies are impressive, I found that I wanted to see more detail.  So I began my hunt for a camera.

Which camera to chose?

There are two basic types of cameras used for astrophotography, DSLR and CCD. Each type of camera has it’s own benefits and drawbacks, but I chose the DSLR for a few reasons. First, I liked the fact that I could use a DSLR for daytime photography. I’ve always been frustrated with point and shoots, and this became my opportunity to step up. At the time, I also liked the fact that I didn’t have to bring my laptopThe Moon out into the field with the DSLR. CCD’s require a dedicated laptop computer. As it turned out, I prefer using my DSLR in conjunction with my laptop, anyways. It makes focusing, framing and reviewing a lot easier. It also means that I can review my photo’s while shooting without disturbing the current shot. As well, DSLR’s are much more affordable then CCD’s.

The DSLR I chose was the Canon XS. At the time, it was Canon’s entry level DSLR and it came with features that help during an astrophotography session. Live view, for example, allows you to see and zoom in on whats in the viewfinder from the camera’s LCD or from your computer. It also allows you to set up a series of timed exposures(while hooked up to a computer), which previously required a separate timer hooked up to the camera. All in all, the Canon XS makes a very good imaging camera for astronomy.

Next, I had to attach it to the scope. I purchased a Celestron T-Ring and T-adapter. A T-Ring is specific to the camera model as it threads onto a DSLR just as the lens would. The T-adapter threads into the T-Ring as well as the telescope. Once all of the pieces are attached, the camera is hooked up to the scope. From here, I had to find a way to focus. Fortunately for me, there was a partial moon out, and I was able to use the moon for focus. At this point, I had already brought my laptop computer outside and hooked it up to the scope. Now, rather then looking at the moon through the eyepiece of the scope, I just sat down at my camping chair and observed the moon on my computer screen. I could also zoom in on any point in the image just by clicking.

So I snapped my first astroimage.  Then I adjusted the exposure and took another image.  My results are above.

Moon photography is the easiest type of astrophotography.  It is a big bright target, and doesn’t require much image processing.  A single short exposure photograph can be amazing.   This differs from planets, which tend to be smaller and require multiple short exposures, and stacking or combining of exposures to add detail.  Deep sky photography is the most advanced and requires precise tracking of the target and long exposure photographs.  In future articles, I’ll be concentrating on my introduction to deep sky photography.

Continued in Part 3…