Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Visit to Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii

On our 40th wedding anniversary my wife and I went to Kona, Hawaii to celebrate.

When I realized that some of the great observatories were on that island we booked a ride with a tour group (

I am so glad we did as I could sit back and enjoy the ride, the views, and ask the tour guide all the questions I wanted.

We left Kona, Hawaii (sea level elevation) at about 3:00 pm and drove north up the coastal route and then headed east on the new highway towards Hilo (He-low) on what has been called the Saddle Road (because it is the "low" route between the great shield volcano Mauna Loa and the more upright Mauna Kea). The white specks on Maunakea are just a few of the observatories...

Then taking to road north to the Maunokea Visitor Information Station (which is at the 9,200 foot elevation).

Our guides...
It is best to stop there to get acclimated to the thinner air for at least 30+ minutes as the peak of Mauna Kea is just barely short of 14,000 feet ! Just a short jog at the visitor station confirmed that the air was thin!

A scope was up and running showing visitors the solar disk...

...which was blank (no sunspots).

While there we enjoyed a three cheese lasagna,
a huge brownie, both delicious!

And, of course, I had to hit the gift shop!

Cap, hoodie, patches, postcards... tourist!

After lightening my wallet we loaded back up in the tour van (very comfy) and continued up the zig-zagging road that is just barely wider than two vehicles side by side.

Great views out the large windows. Maunaloa is in the distance.
We were set at ease by the driver who has experience with this dusty, rocky road, often driving directly into the Sun. 

Finally, at the top there were the observatories! What a sight!

We got out and took in the views and the sunset in comfort as we were provided with warm parkas and gloves. They were definitely needed as there was a brisk wind ready to push you over the edge!

One obs was under repair... I can't imagine what it would be like to be on that scaffolding, that high up, and with that wind!

We stayed long enough to see the Sun set and a couple of the observatories begin to open their shutters for the night's work.

As most of these observatories (see this list) need total darkness and a dust free environment, it is required that all visitors and vehicles evacuate shortly after sunset. It gets dark quickly this close to the equator (a hair under 20 degrees N) even in summer. On the way down darkness descended and again we were grateful to have an experienced driver at the wheel.

Reaching the 9,200 foot level again near the visitor information center, we pulled over and our tour guide broke out a Celestron 11 inch SCT scope and gave the group a chance to peer into the cosmos.

Sadly, the view wasn't as great as you might have expected because the Moon was waxing and was at about first quarter, which was flooding the night sky, making dim objects harder to see. I was able to coax the guide to point it to Omega Centauri, the great globular cluster which I will never see from central Oregon. I had to use averted vision to see it in the glare of the Moon but I could make out a few of the brighter stars within it. For me, I spent a little time trying to do some wide angle night sky photography. And I put out a little effort to image Omega Centauri with my Canon t3i camera with several lenses.

A little hot chocolate later and we were back in the van about 11 pm and heading back to the city of Kona... again glad we had a driver who could stay awake while we dozed!

Back in the Kona Seaside Hotel again it was past midnight but we were contented and pleased to have put out the money for this tour. I would highly recommend it!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Successful Test: Mulitple Night Stacking - M27 aka Dumbell Nebula

Having seen other astrophotographers not only stack a night's worth of images but now multiple night's worth of images of the same subject, I had to give it a try.

So last night I went out and took another 12 minutes of exposures of Messier 27 (M27). The sub images were 30 secs long at ISO 3200, again with my Meade LX200GPS 8" scope at prime focus using a Canon T2i camera body.

Then I took that stacked image and "stacked" it (using DeepSkyStacker freeware) with the previous night's 15 minutes of exposure resulting in a potential 27 minute overall exposure time.

Success! I was amazed that all the stars aligned, that the pinkish-reds were easier to pull out and many more faint stars appeared!

Here is the result! If you click on the image it will appear more full screen and you can toggle back and forth between it and the previous night's 15 minute stack. Enjoy His creation!

M27 - Total: 27 minutes of stacking exposures

M27: 15 minutes of stacking exposures

I am going to keep on adding more and more over the remainder of the summer and see how it turns out!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Back in the Observatory Again! M13 is beautiful !

It has been quite some time since I last did some astrophotography in my backyard observatory and I found that pine pollen had covered everything with a thin film of yellow dust. Good thing I keep most everything covered... still I had to "mop down" a lot to get things back to normal.

It is summer time and that means it gets dark late here at the 43rd parallel of central Oregon... even at 10:30 pm it isn't astronomically dark yet... and the nearly full Moon was threatening the eastern horizon!

Still the photo bug hit and I decided to spend what little time I had imaging M 13, the great globular star cluster in the Hercules constellation, which was nearly overhead.

Not knowing if the scope would remember when and where it was after "sleeping" for over a month I turned it on, waited for it to go through its calisthenics. I asked it then to go to Jupiter. It was off... but only in RA. I released the RA lock and manually moved the scope to Jupiter and relocked the RA.

Starting up the old XP laptop I connected to the scope using the Meade software, synced it to Jupiter and sent it to a bright star for Bahthinov mask for focusing.

I then commanded the scope to head to M 13. Good news! With the Canon t2i attached at prime focus, M 13 was fully in view, though up and to the right of the frame. Re-centering it, I began to make some test exposures. Most were at 30 seconds using ISO 1600. Eventually I pushed it up to ISO 3200 so that I could keep the exposures to 20 seconds to avoid star trailing (for the most part).

The camera connected to my Windows 10 laptop, starting the Canon utility program, I began to take exposures. After about 10 exposures I started Deep Sky Stacker and began to stack the images I had already taken and any more I created it would add to the image. I had to throw out about 25% of the images which showed too much trailing at 100% viewing.

In the end this was the result of a cumulative time of just short of 10 minutes. Enjoy!
NOTE: Click on images for a large view!

Here is a cropped image of M13:

The excessive blue-purpleishness of the stars is partly due to it not being quite dark when I began imaging. Will try again !

It was now about 11:30 pm and the Moon was well up over the eastern horizon and it was time to call it quits.

It was just good to see God's creation again in the heavens above and do some imaging!

Three Globular Clusters and an Awesome Nebula: M27

Last night was great in the observatory (obs) with temps starting in the low 60's at about 10 pm and ending at 12:45 am at 45 degrees.
NOTE: Click on images for a larger view!

15 subs @ about 20 sec each, 
ISO 1600 - Canon t2i - Prime focus
Meade 8" SCT GPS on a equatorial wedge
stacked with DeepSkyStacker
for a total of 5 minutes 15 secs
M5 info: Started before total astronomical darkness with Messier 5 (M5) globular cluster in the constellation Serpens. It was discovered by Gottfried Kirch in 1702 when he was observing a comet. Charles Messier also noted it in 1764, but thought it a nebula without any stars associated with it. William Herschel was the first to resolve individual stars in the cluster in 1791, counting roughly 200.
Binoculars or small telescopes will identify the object as non-stellar while larger telescopes will show some individual stars, of which the brightest are of apparent magnitude 12.2. Spanning 165 light-years in diameter, M5 is one of the largest known globular clusters with more than 100,000 stars!
The bluishness of the background sky is due to it not being quite dark yet.

9 subs @ about 15 sec each, 
ISO 3200 - Canon t2i - Prime focus
Meade 8" SCT GPS on a equatorial wedge
stacked with DeepSkyStacker
for a total of 2 minutes 15 secs
M9 info: Now it was getting darker and I attempted to image this faint star cluster that was low between pine trees. M9 is a globular cluster in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The cluster was discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier on June 3, 1764, who described it as a "nebula without stars".[8] In 1783, English astronomer William Herschel was able to use his reflector to resolve individual stars within the cluster. It is one of the nearer globular clusters to the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. 
I had to end photography of this object long before I wanted to due to the fact that it slid behind my neighbor's tall pine tree.

9 subs @ about 36 sec each, 
ISO 6400 - Canon t2i - Prime focus
Meade 8" SCT GPS on a equatorial wedge
stacked with DeepSkyStacker
for a total of 3 minutes 15 secs
M107 info:  is the last globular cluster in the Messier Catalogue. It is a very loose globular cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in April 1782 and independently by William Herschel in 1793. It wasn't until 1947 that Helen Sawyer Hogg added it and three other objects discovered by Méchain to the list of Messier objects.
M107 is close to the galactic plane at a distance of about 20,900 light-years from Earth. There are 25 known variable stars in this cluster.
Again, I found this to be a fairly faint star cluster and more difficult to image.

20 subs @ about 30 sec each, 
ISO 3200 - Canon t2i - Prime focus
Meade 8" SCT GPS on a equatorial wedge
stacked with DeepSkyStacker
for a total of 15 minutes
M27 info: The Dumbbell Nebula (also known as Apple Core Nebula, Messier 27, M 27, or NGC 6853) is a planetary nebula in the constellation Vulpecula, at a distance of about 1,360 light-years.
This object was the first planetary nebula to be discovered; by Charles Messier in 1764. At its brightness of visual magnitude 7.5 and its diameter of about 8 arcminutes, it is easily visible in binoculars, and a popular observing target in amateur telescopes.
This is the original uncropped image from last night's imaging. (Note: This image takes in the same area of the sky as the prior images)

I am including in this report a cropped and post processed closeup image of M27. Enjoy!


Note to self: 
* There is a need to get a little better polar alignment so there isn't so much north/south drift over 45 minutes of imaging.
* Need to work on optical alignment to see if I can get a little sharper stars for more detail
* Need to try M27 with the Canon XS modded camera to try to draw out more of the reds in M27

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Another "Boring" Solar Eclipse Practice Session UPDATED

The CATE Experiment director Matt Penn has encouraged us who are part of the project to "practice, practice, practice" until we are so experienced at the process that it is "boring"! He mentioned that in science experiment work that boring is good.

Well, today it was "boring" and boring is GOOD! In less than an hour I was able to set up the equipment, run through the whole process, take down the equipment and stow it. That is a record!

Here are a couple of images from today's practice on the Sun:

The sunspot to the right is called AR2665 and has just released a huge coronal mass ejection that should bring auroras to our planet in the next day or so! Here is a close up of that sunspot area.
It is moving to the right around to the back side of the Sun.

And here is a HDR image of the solar disk:

Update: I received an encouraging review of this practice session by Sarah, who is responsible for many aspects of the CATE Experiment. Here is her review of my test:

"Good morning,

"Boring" is good!

We have a new procedure coming out today with a software update, which includes instructions for the 90 degree problem for sites as well as including a check of the focus right before totality. Great suggestions!

I took a look at your images, and they're fantastic. Your angle was 268 degrees (perfect would be 270) and your drift was only 9 pixels; I don't think you can do much better than that! The exposure was also much better.

Have a great week!


Thursday, July 13, 2017

CATE Experiment Site Exploration Trip and Problems with CATE Tests

After returning home from Kona, Hawaii, on Saturday, July 8th my wife and I headed to the area where we are going to set up in preparation for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Since it is on private property I will not divulge the actual location except to say that it is north of the tiny town of Mitchell, Oregon (population 125).

We were not prepared for the rugged beauty of the road that led to it! Wonderful!

Arriving there within minutes of the hour that the total eclipse will occur (about 10:21 am), our partner in this project greeted us and I set up the CATE equipment to prepare for an "on location, close to the actual time" imaging test.

I fully expected to complete my test within an hour but that was not to be. I just could not get polar alignment, even though I was quite sure I was near it. After nearly 2 hours of frustration, I gave up, took a few images and packed up the equipment.

My problem: The turf was soft and though I had initially leveled the tripod, when I added the counter-weight, the heavy telescope, and all the needed equipment... the leg points of the tripod were steadily but slowly sinking into the ground! AAAARRRGGH !

The solution for future reference: bring along some 12"x12"x 2" concrete stepping blocks to put under the tripod legs which will spread out the weight and prevent that "sinking feeling"!

On our return we encountered some old cars on a tour in the area! Fun!


Stopping in for late lunch in Mitchell we had some great burgers at the "Little Pine Cafe."
Great burgers... and even my wife said so ! ...not to mention the fries... I loved'em ! The staff was helpful and willing to talk so we pushed the conversation to the fact that Mitchell is being touted as a "great place to view the eclipse from!" They were like "Great... we moved to Mitchell to get away from the crowds! LOL!"

There we found this informational card about the total eclipse (Mitchell is very near the center of the path of the shadow). Give it a read!

It is uncertain that this cafe will be open the day of the eclipse as some are saying that upwards of 50,000 may try to use Mitchell as their viewing point. This cafe, not to mention to whole town, can barely handle a couple of hundred people (insufficient parking, toilets, groceries, etc). Good luck if you try coming here!

Hunger satisfied, we headed next door to the Wheeler County Trading Company store.

They had eclipse t-shirts for sale... we had to get ours before the selfish people got theirs! LOL !

The high school football field was going to be my initial site for the CATE project but I was told that helicopter special services (sheriff, air life, military, etc.) had commandeered it. But it turns out that the high school is renting space on that football field... for a price... and a refundable deposit fee... can you say: $7,000 deposit? No that is NOT a typo! Don't think there will be many takers...

Having had a good laugh on that we were ready for some iced mochas. Having spied this one and only espresso booth ( Route 26 Espresso )just west of Mitchell we had to stop in.

Wide awake and cooled off (it was well into the 90's now) we headed home to La Pine...
...but not before stopping in at the Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil National Monument parks.

I checked with the the park rangers and found out that I still could not stay overnight there due to park regulations. Just as well, 50,000 people are likely to descend on this location as it is smack-dab on the center line of the eclipse... this little, itty bitty day-time only park with a small two lane road leading to it!

If you ever get a chance, take the time and see this little gem in the high desert of Oregon... just not on eclipse weekend!

Here's a sample!

Ok, here's the thing: The skies were clear and the Sun directly behind me in this shot which will mean that the lighting is "flat". My plan: Image the total solar eclipse from my private location and photoshop the blue sky out of it. Then replace the sky with the dark sky with the Sun in totality from my location and put it it over the Painted Hills photo (since few will be able to do that in reality I feel justified in giving it a try!)

The national park system is advertising their places in the path of the eclipse with these awesome posters:

They even have a card stock poster that has safety solar glasses on top!

Upon arrival back at home, I immediately ran a test CATE imaging session with three concrete stepping stones I had already under each leg of the tripod on grass:

...and BINGO! My "sinking" (aka stinking) problem was solved! I notified my fellow CATE observers via Facebook of this "discovery" and it was met with a number of "Likes" and "Thanks for the idea!"