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6 Feb 2010: It's been too long. It's been 3 1/2 years since I made a dark sky trip. If all goes well, I'll fix that soon. A couple of weeks ago I dragged my scopes out to the backyard and learned that my Meade LPI really doesn't like to work with 64-bit Windows7. I ordered an Orion StarShoot Autoguider to replace it and it showed up this week. The new camera is 1.3MPixels and has an integrated autoguiding controller. This should let me ditch my Shoestring GPUSB and control both my scope and camera from one USB port. The weather isn't going to let me test it outside this weekend, but I'll get it under the stars soon.

20-21 Jun 2006: I made a solo dark sky trip to Mahaogany Flat Campground near Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park. I was the only one at the campground & probably the only person within 15 miles. The campground is at 8200' elevation, so with the nearest light bulb 19 miles away at Furnace Creek it was dark. The sun set about 8pm and as the skies got darker I finished getting everything ready for the night's imaging. About an hour after sunset I had everything ready, but was surprised how bright the eastern horizon still was. I double checked my Naval Observatory printout of when it should be totally dark and it should have been..."why is the horizon so bright?" It wasn't light pollution from Las Vegas (over 100 miles away). The bright glow covering the eastern horizon was the Milky Way rising. Beautiful.



Between that night and the next I shot multiple long exposure photos of M8, M20, M16, N27, NGC6960 and short exposures of several other deep space objects. I shot using my standard telescope configuration, a tripod mounted C8-SGT with a piggybacked C80ED APO refractor mounted using a ADM Mini-Dovetail System. This was my first dark sky trip imaging with my Canon Rebel XT and it performed great. I also used a demo version of K3CCDTools for autoguiding instead of GuideDog. Guidedog version 2 should be out soon and should support long exposure autoguiding with my Meade LPI, but K3CCDTools already supports it. K3CCDTools performed perfectly and has quite a few very nice features. It'll be tough to decide which program to buy, K3CCDTools or GuideDog 2.

Here are my notes from the trip:

20 Jun 2006: Mahogany Flat Campground, Death Valley, CA - 36:13:53.8N, 117:04:02.9W, 8200'. I arrived from Edwards at 5pm This is my first trip to this campground. It was about 90 deg F when I arrived - much warmer than I hoped given the 104 deg temps at 1400' in Panamint Valley. I set up camp at the 2nd most northern camp site on the east side of the turn around. There are lots of small (10-20') trees here, so camp sites with unobstructed views in all quadrants don't exist. This camp site is about the best tradeoff for the sky views at night and still some shade for the tent during the day.

At about 7pm (1 hour prior to sunset), the temperature started to drop noticeably. At 8pm it was 75 deg. I'm expecting temps between 50 and 60 degrees tonight - you have to bring warm clothes for after dark and cool clothes for the daytime here.

First star (maybe Jupiter) just now - 8:21pm. I planned on photographing M8 and M20 this trip, but the southern sky may be blocked too much.

The sunset toward Panamint Valley was very nice. Visibility is very good and the wind is dead calm. For wildlife so far I've seen crows and several types of small birds. There is some sort of ground squirrel here, but they are sky. The campground has a single pit bathroom in a concrete building. It's clean for a pit bathroom - not bad. There is no water here - I brought 5 gallons plus misc other drinks.

The Moon doesn't rise until after 2am tongiht. It should be very dark.

The Milky Way just rose - unbelievable.

3:49am. The moon is up along with Venus. M8 and M20 was the target tonight. They both fit in the same image with my C80ED and Rebel XT - they just aren't oriented exactly how I'd like. Still, I think the photo will turn out ok. M8/M20 are now very low near the trees and Rogers Peak to the south, so I'm taking a few shots of M27 - just west of zenith. The moon lights up the sky quite a bit, but from zenith to west are still fairly dark (still easy to see the Milky Way). I'm shooting M27 with the C80ED. It makes it small, but it's a very sharp image with good color.

DSLR Focus (camera control software) did not recognize the dead battery in my Rebel XT until the camera shut off (DSLR Focus version 3.3.15 beta).

My truck has been running at idle power to power the inverter for about 7 hours now and the gas gauge has only dropped about 3 needle tip widths.

After I flipped sides of the telescope shooting M8/M20 (about 1am), it had lots of trouble guiding in declination. It wandered off about 10-15 ar-seconds, then would correct itself. This repeated many times. Now that I'm shooting M27 with the scope pointed almost straight up, it's not having any problems. 4:10am - TIRED! The sky is definitely turning blue already for the sunrise.

After sleep - I took a time lapse series of 300 photos from my camp site using DSLR Focus in Av mode - worked well. After that and about 30 minutes of trying to call Tanya (cell phone worked fine last night, but not this morning), I went to sleep. I talked with her about 12:30pm after I woke up and started processing last night's photos. I haven't taken any dark frames yet, but the initial versions of both the M8/M20 and M27 photos look good. M8/M20: "Dude, I took that!"

I checked on the balance of the scope. RA was close ~ a little telescope side heavy with the amount of weights I have. Dec was way off - too bad I didn't catch it when I first put the scopes togehter yesterday. Hopefully that will fix my dec guiding issues.

Tonight (21 Jun 06) I'm going to shoot M16 and maybe a few more M27 frames.

21 Jun 2006: I started shooting M27 about 10:30. I'm going to shoot 10 frames at 300 sec, ISO1600 with my C80ED and Rebel XT. Yesterday was my first day autoguiding with K3CCDTools. It worked well yesterday ~ except for my dec balance issue and it's working well today. I'm going to try M16 next, but guide star proximity may be a problem.

I downloaded GADFly from the files section of Yahoo's digital_astro group and got a couple modified copies of it from a fellow amateur astrophotographer. GADFly is a script program written in AutoIt. It's designed to automatically shift the guidestar by a couple of pixels in between each frame. It's designed to work with DSLR Focus and GuideDog. Since I'm using K3CCDTools instead of GuideDog for autoguiding, I'm not using GADFly this trip. I have the source code though, so I may try to modify it to work with K3CCDTools. Not today though.

This afternoon the wind picked up. I could hear the wind squeeze its way thoguht the saddle north of my camp site. The surface wind is now calm, but seeing is not as good as last night. Hopefully through my fairly wide field C80ED it won't degrade photos too much.

During my setup images for my M27 shots, I captured 2 different satelites passing very near M27. One frame started or stopped with the satelite in the field of view. The other one passed through the frame completely during the exposure.

There are several small field mice that are brave enough to look for food around my camp site. One just walked past my chair.

The autoguiding RA and dec error logs on K3CCDTools show them within +/-3 arc-seconds so far for all my M27 shots tonight. I'm on my last M27 frame now. M16 is next. The wind is picking up ~ 5mph on the surface, but I can hear it moving the trees.

11:45pm - I'm now shooting M16. It's cluster is easily visible, but the nebula is fairly dark. I'm shooting 7x10 minute ISO1600 exposures which should take me to its transit time where I'll have to move the mount. Guiding for the first frame, of M16 was about +/- 5 arc-sec. The wind varies from cal to 8-10mph now. Tehmp is 65 deg. Using K3CCDTools I'm able to guide on a mag 7.7 star using a 500ms image form the Meade LPI. Just to make sure ti stays bright enough, I'm using a 700ms image. This still lets me use a 1.0 second update rate on the autoguiding. That's the same as GuideDog, but instead of a mag 5.7-6.0, I'm using a much closer mag 7.7 star. Nice!

3am - I've just proven simple step-by-step procesures can save lots of time. I just spent over an hour trying to image NGC6960, M51, M101 - anything!? I had my C80ED slewed off quite a bit from my C8 for the M16 photos and guiding. When I moved the scope over to NGC6960, I tried to align the C80ED using the view finder. I thought I did it right, but no nebula showed up in my photos. So, I started increasing the length of my test shots - "maybe it's just really faint." I took 30 sec, 1 minute, 2 minute, 5 minute and 10 minute expsoures looking fo rit. The 10 minute frame showed part of another nebula, but not 6960. So, I gave up and moved to M101 - nothing. M51 - nothing. But I could see it in the eyepiece of my C8. So, I slewed the C8 to Mizar - bright and easy to ID. Then I aligned the C80ED and took a photo to verify. Ahhhh.

So, I slewed back to NGC6960, locked the autoguider onto the center star and took a 2 minute shot - found it! I took a 10 minute ISO1600 shot to check exposure - wow! I started a series of 10 minute shots at 3:08am. I'll keep shooting it until it's too light. I should be able to get 5-6 shots before I'm done for this trip. The Moon is up - just a sliver - looks nice over Death Valley!

Unfortunately, NGC6960 transits soon. Too bad I wasn't shooting it for the last 2 hours! Last shot tonight ended at 4:20am - too bright for any more.

16 Jan 2005: I made a trip to Mesquite Springs Campground in Death Valley, CA. This was my second trip there with my telescope & the darkness there still amazes me. I got a few pretty good photos from the trip. See the photo page for them. More details here when I have time to write...

23 Nov 2004: My local telescope store didn't have any counterweights in stock so I decided to improvise a little. I haven't taken the two scopes outside yet together, but I slewed it around in the house. The mount seems to have no problems moving things around at any of it's speeds. Here's a couple photos with cameras in place on both scopes and my temporary counterweight "solution."



22 Nov 2004: My ADM Mini-Dovetail system came in today. I unpacked it & found nicely machined black anodized parts. The dovetail itself is 1.5" wide, 5/8" thick and 13.5" long. Just guessing from ADM's website, the system was originally designed for a Meade scope which has slightly different mounting holes than the Celestron. It looks like Anthony at ADM modifies the parts slightly to fit a Celestron scope - perhaps this is the reason for the extra $10 for the Celestron setup. The dovetail mounts to the scope via two machined curved plates with countersunk holes exaCTLY where they need to be. All the parts fit perfectly together & bolted easily to the top of my C8. A white ADM logo sticker is on each side of the dovetail. Overall the Mini-Dovetail looks professional & very sturdy.

I ordered ADM's 125mm mounting rings with the Mini-Dovetail system. They also have a black anodized finish and come with 3 large (strong) Delrin tipped setting bolts each arranged in the standard manner. Once the dovetail is mounted to the scope, no tools are required to install or adjust the mouting rings. The rings clamp securely in place via their built-in brackets and hang tightened bolts. My Celestron 80ED scope fit easily through the mounting rings. Adjusting the alignment of the guide scope relative to the main scope is easy (at least in the day time) with the setting bolts. Based on a few quick measurements, I'll be able to point the guide scope anywhere in a +/- 5 degree cone relative to the main scope. This is a huge amount of travel & should let me easily find a bright guide star for just about any object in the sky.

The whole purpose of this setup is to enable me to use one of my scopes as a guide scope while shooting long exposure images with the other scope. To get good (or even ok) photos, there can be absolutely no play between the two scopes. Using GuideDog and my C8 with a radial off-axis gudier, I was able to autoguide my scope on a star keeping it within 1 to 2 arc-seconds for hours on end. One arc-second is 1/3600 of a degree. I can't feel or see any play at all in the ADM Mini-Dovetail system, but the proof will be in the photos. I fully expect great results from this system.

The system alone adds about 2.5 lbs to my setup. My C80ED adds another 7. To balance all the new hardware out, I'll need to pick up an additional counterweight. Using dumbell weights, I was able to balance the whole setup with 12 additional lbs. If I can find the same counterweight I already had, that'll be 24 lbs of counterweights and about 22 lbs of telescopes, cameras & other hardware my mount will be swinging around. I'll post later how it all works.

On a side note, the ADM dovetail is slightly less than half the width of a Losmandy dovetail. For the size scope I'm mounting I think the Losmandy setup is considerable overkill. My initial impression is for roughly half the price and half the weight of the Losmandy setup, I should have a perfectly usable guidescope setup. I'll know more once I start taking photos.





14 Nov 2004: I ordered a mounting dovetail and rings to mount my C80ED to my C8. After much deliberation, I decided on ADM's Mini-Dovetail System with 125mm rings. This will let me use either scope as a guide scope while imaging with the other. The rings should allow for about a +/- 3 degree cone so I can aim the smaller scope at a slightly different part of the sky than the bigger scope. Using GuideDog autoguiding software and my Meade LPI web camera I should be able to find a suitable guidestar for almost any object in the sky.

2 Nov 2004: I shot a few more photos tonight through my Celestron 80ED. I started with the Double Cluster, Caldwell 14 (NGC869/884). I shot a single frame of Saturn (my first photo of Saturn) as it rose over my neighbor's house & a few shots of the moon. I still have to decide on a mount for my new scope, but it's definately a great addition to my C8.

Here's my little Saturn photo:


30 Oct 2004: Tonight was my first night shooting photos through my new Celestron 80ED Apochromatic refractor. This little scope has wonderfully sharp views and takes great photos. I shot a moon photo and about an hour worth of shots on M42. My M42 shots were very washed out due to the near full moon & Las Vegas lights. I shot a few test shots of star clusters with very good results. I can't wait to get tis scope out to someplace dark!

16 Oct 2004: This weekend was my second "dark sky trip." Tanya & I went to Mesquite Springs Campground in Death Valley National Monument, CA. It was the darkest place I've ever been! It was so dark out that I couldn't see my own hands or feet! The downside was that it was windy - very windy. We estimated winds at 25mph with gusts much higher. Because of the wind, steady photography though my telescope wasn't possible. I did take a couple star trail photos with my Digital Rebel & a wide angle lens though. Here's the story:

Tanya & I rented a pop-up camper from Outdoor Recreation at Nellis AFB. I had to fly Friday night and didn't get home until 5am Saturday morning, so Tanya did most of the packing for the trip while I was off having fun at work. Saturday morning, after a quick "night's sleep," I finished packing all of my telescope & accessories. After we finished packing, we looked up the weather in Nevada & California. We originally planned on a trip to the Cathedral Gorge, but a low pressure area just south of Las Vegas spread a high overcast cloud layer over most Nevada. A phone call to the Cathedral Gorge campground confirmed it - clouds everywhere. Death Valley in California looked like the best bet for the weather.

After a 3 1/2 hour drive we pulled into Mesquite Springs campground in Death Valley. As soon as we rounded the corner to the camp sites, we spotted a Meade 12" LX200 set up behind someone's camping trailer - this must be the place! We picked our campsite near the 12" scope and started to set everything up. The sky was blue & clear and the wind was calm. As the sun set a small group gathered near our camping neighbor's telescope to look at the setting 2 day old sliver of the moon. I finished setting up the scope and stopped to eat dinner with Tanya.

The sun set as we finished dinner, so I moved outside to get going on my photography. Just 15 or so minutes after sunset, with the sky still fairly blue, I could already see more stars than I can from my house in Vegas. Within 30 more minutes, the Milky Way was plain to see and dominated the sky. An hour after sunset it was darker than I'd ever seen before (on the ground that is). There were thousands of stars visible to the naked eye. In Las Vegas I can see anywhere from 10 to 20 stars depending on the night...did I already say THOUSANDS?!

After aligning my scope, I slewed it to M13 to see the difference under a dark sky. Honestly for this that bright of an object I didn't expect to see much of a difference, but there were easily twice the already huge number of individual stars in the cluster. I quickly bounced through M57, M27 & M15, then hit M31 (Andromeda Galaxy). Each object looked remarkably better under a dark sky. In vegas, M31 is visible as a fairly small bright blob. Out here, M31 entirely filled my eyepiece. I installed my focal reducer to expand the view and returned to M31. It still more than filled the view, but several of the galaxy's actual bands were now visible. Tanya came out to take a look and was impressed also.

I slewed over to the night's first photography target, M27, and started to assemble all the camera gear & laptop hookups. As if on cue, the wind started picking up. By the time I started to focus the telescope to the camera, the wind had picked up to 15mph or so with gusts higher. With those winds, my tripod can't hold my telescope steady enough to take any quality photos. I tried a few anyway, but stars were bouncy streaks instead of pinpoints. A little discouraged, I went in our camper to take a break from the wind. I went back out about 30 minutes later only to find the wind had picked up even more.

I pulled all my camera equipment off the telescope and spent the next couple hours looking through the eyepiece. About 9pm, I went over to my camping neighbor's spot and saw that several scopes were now set up there. I met 3 people from the Tonopah Chapter of the Astronomical Society of Nevada. They had been there for several nights already and just decided to call it a night because of the strong winds.

I gave up waiting on trying to shoot photos through my telescope and decided to shoot some star trail photos. I shot one 15 minute and two 30 minute exposures with my camera mounted on a fixed tripod pointed north. Check out the results on my photography page.

I spent until about midnight looking through the telescope. After looking at M31 again (in amazement), I slewed over to M81 & M82. Both fit nicely in the same field of view with the focal reducer installed. I've seen these two galaxies through a 16" Dobsonian reflector - my view wasn't that good, but it was close. The dark skies definately make a drastic improvement in what your eye sees. I could see both cores of the M51 galaxy and several bands of the larger part of the galaxy. The detail there made me remember to turn my scope south - a part of the sky where I can't see anything from home due to the Las Vegas Strip lights.

The Sagittarius and Scopio regions of the Milky Way are filled with beautiful objects. M20, the Trifid Nebula was impressive with nebula visible over a large region. M8 was huge - the nebula was so large I first confused it with what I'm used to seeing as a bright sky background. M11 was very bright as always. The M24 star cloud filled the entire view. The cluster in M16 was clear with many dim and bright stars, but the nebula surrounding the star cluster was very difficult to make out. I'm guessing it's huge size makes it hard to see it's faint detail. One day I'll hopefully be able to get a good photo of the nebula. M17, the Swan Nebula, looked great though. The "swan's head" region of the nebula was clearly visible. The open cluster M23 filled the entire field of view with many very similar looking stars. M28 viewed as a very small globular cluster with my focal reducer and 25mm eyepiece. M22 looked more defined than ever and very bright. I couldn't make out any individual stars in M54, a small globular cluster. M55 is a fairly big globular cluster - it looked like a faint band of nebula spread across the region, but I can't find any mention or photos of it - thin cloud maybe?

I slewed the scope to M69 just in time to see it set over the mountains. M70 looked very similar to M69 (without the mountain in the field of view). M10, a globular cluster, looked nice but was fairly dim. M12 is another globular cluster. I could make out many, many stars in M12 with a handful of them being noticably brighter than the others. It's a fairly open as far as globular clusters go and has an irregular shape. M14 was a small, very uniform globular cluster with no individual stars visible. M14 was very low on the horizon when I viewed it. In my continuing survey of globular clusters, M92 had a very even glow and I could make out quite a few stars. I then turned back to M13 - it looked incredible as ever. Except for M22, it's unmatched as a globular cluster in my opinion.

The wind still wasn't dying down, so approaching midnight, I decided to quickly view a few more things then pack things up for the night. M45, the Pleiades open cluster in Taurus was gorgeous out here with nebulosity visible around one of the brighter stars. The nebula around (in front of) M45 is very hard to see though. I just had to stop by M31 again: "Breathtaking!" I noted. I'm not sure why I hadn't looked at it before, but M34 is an awesome looking open cluster with very bright stars filling my view. The open cluster of M52 was next: "nice open cluster - lots of bright stars." Now straying away from the Messier list, Caldwell 14 was next. C14 is a double open cluster that more than filled my field of view with some very bright stars. Another dark sky treat was NGC7293, the Helix Nebula. I can't make it out at all from my house, but under the Death Valley skies it looks great!

M42 was my last deep sky object for the night through the telescope. I took photos of it earlier in the week, but out here I'm pretty sure that I can see more of the nebula than my photos showed. When you see an object like this it's almost hard to believe it's real. I can't wait to get out here again when the wind isn't blowing!

While packing up my scope, I took a few minutes to look at the sky without a scope. M31 was easy to see. I'd seen M31 before without a telescope, but it was through a pair of night vision goggles, so that hardly counts. Much to my surprise, M33 was also visible - although much harder to see than M31. So, that's 2 galaxies other than ours that I could see with just my naked eyes. All I could think to say was wow. Speaking of galaxies, the Milky Way was very impressive. I could easily see the split in the bands around Deneb and the buldge near the center of our Galaxy towards Sagitarius. Seeing it so clearly made me want to have a piggyback mount for my camera to capture it...maybe for the next trip.

12 Oct 2004: The winter sky is on the way! I started tonight's viewing planning on just looking at a few objects, but it turned into an all night imaging session. I bought a Celestron f/6.3 focal reducer, so I was very interested in trying it out. I quickly scanned through M57, M27, M15, M33, M31 then turned my scope to M45, the Pleiades open cluster in Taurus. The Pleiades is a beautiful and extremely bright star cluster. Tanya was even impressed with how it looked: "like diamonds" she said.

About 11:30pm the constellation of Orion rose. Orion is the dominating constellation of the winter sky & even from light polluted skies it's very impressive. The brightest nebula from earth is in Orion's sword - aptly named the Great Orion Nebula or Messier 42. There are many spectacular images of this nebula taken with even basic equipment. In fact, M42 was the first nebula successfully photographed. I wanted to try my hand at imaging it too. Because of my recently installed WindowsXP Service Pack 2, the ASCOM drivers could not connect to the telescope. So, I couldn't autoguide tonight. I kept my exposures to 30 seconds, but was still able to see the brighter parts of the nebula. The nebula covers over a square degree of the sky. Even with my focal reducer (which expands the field of view), I wouldn't be able to image the entire nebula with one shot. See my photo page for my first M42 shot.

I plan on my second dark sky observing/photography session this weekend. Originally I planned on going to Cathedral Gorge State Park in eastern Nevada, but I might change that to Furnance Creek Campground in Death Valley, CA. Either way, it looks like the weather will be good. I'm planing on getting about 4-6 hours worth of exposures on M27, M45 and M42. If things are going well, I might try shooting IC434, the horsehead nebula. It's a very dark nebula, so a dark sky is critical.

10 Oct 2004: We had a family reunion this weekend, so we were quite busy. About half of the family was interested in taking a peek through the telescope, so I brought it out tonight. As luck would have it, about the time I got the scope set up, the clouds rolled in. Our viewing was in few-minute increments through whatever holes in the clouds opened up. We did get to see a few double stars (Polaris was the most viewed), and M57 (the Ring Nebula). At least one family member is interested in getting a scope of their own. Even with the cloud cover, we were able to see a few stars - although most of the night none were visible with the naked eye. M13 & M22 escaped us all night. Hopefully the next family reunion will have clearer skies.

11 Sep 2004: Dark sky trip #1 was today: Valley of Fire State Park, NV. The weather forecast was high thin clouds until 9-10pm, then clear after. Tanya & I loaded up the Jeep with all of my telescope stuff and an extra laptop computer so Tanya could watch movies while I was enjoying the dark skies. After just over an hour drive we got to the state park. Valley of Fire has many day use only areas, so we drove around the two campground areas in the park to find the best area for the telescope. The Arch Campground area was nestled within large bright red-orange rocks (some probably in the 100 foot tall range). Some of the campsites in that campground offered almost no view of the sky - they were amazing, but not for using the telescope. The Atlatl Campground area was still right in some large rock formations, but several of the campsites offered fairly unobstructed views. We found campsite 18 and campsite 10 were pretty good for seeing the sky and were both near bathroom facilities. We paid our fee and plopped down at campsite 18.

About an hour later, I had all of my telescope equipment set up including a table with my laptop and cameras. There is no electricity at the camp sites (there is in the bathrooms though), so I connected a power inverter to our Jeep battery which, via a 50' extension cord, provided all the power I needed. I was ready to go for the night by 5:30pm - still about 2 hours before dark. The high clouds were there per the forecast, but there were several fist sized holes of blue sky. There was hope...

Tanya wasn't all that excited about the trip, but went to spend time with me...and to watch some chick flicks that I never wanted to see. She actually ended up having the most fun of the two of us. Soon after getting there, a small ground squirrel (about the size of the palm of your hand) was running up to us to see if we had anything he wanted. Tanya "accidentally" dropped part of her hamburger bun on the ground. Within minutes, there was another squirrel, then another. Before long, we had 7 ground squirrels who were running under our feet looking for and finding the food they wanted. Tanya put out a paper plate with water and they also quickly drank from that. By dark, most of the squirrels were gone for the night.

At sunset, Tanya settled down to watch some movies and I started to polar align my scope. I brought a compass to help rough align the scope, but it failed me miserably. Depending on where I stood, the compass varied where it pointed for north by up to 45 degrees! I don't know if the red rocks and ground hold magnetic metal or not, but with clouds still covering all but a few of the stars and my compass not helping I wasn't even close to getting my mount aligned with celestial north. I tried to align my scope for about an hour, then I just manually slewed it around to the holes in the clouds to see what was there. There was a thunderstorm to the west and another one to the south, but so far no rain. Their flashes of light definately won't help for astrophotos though.

When there were holes in the clouds, the skies at Valley of Fire State Park, were very good to the west and east. Las Vegas to the south and Mesquite to the north both made light domes however. For truely dark skies, I'll have to go further away than here. Still, the views through the telescope were amazing! Actually, the views through my small finder scope were so much better than in Las vegas, that they reminded me of views through my telescope! I was able to see M31 and M13 through my finderscope, something impossible in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is viewable as a light smudge that covers only a small fraction of the telescopes field of view. Under the Valley of Fire skies, M31 filled more than my entire field of view at 81x - spectacular! M13 had more stars visible than I've ever even photographed in M13!

Sadly, that was about the extent of my night's viewing. I didn't get a single photograph. After viewing M13 and M31, I started aligning the scope again - Polaris was now visible. The lightning had stopped and finally at 11:15pm, the skies started to clear. The milky way was plainly visible from Cassiopeia through Cygnus and further south. Then out of nowhere, the stars disappeared as a cloud rolled in and nearly covered the sky. Just as I took a break to see what Tanya was doing, I hear a drop of rain hit the metal awning over the picnic table. A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky followed immediately by a crash of thunder. Within a minute, it was pouring rain. Tanya & I gathered my equipment as fast as we could and loaded the back of the Jeep.

That was the last straw for the night. We dried off a little and started the drive home. So, what did I learn? Dark skies good, rain bad. Valley of Fire definately shows promise for a close semi-dark sight. Next trip I'll try to go further away from town to get darker skies. Delamar Dry Lake (aka Texas Lake) should be very dark. Rachel, NV and Cathedral Gorge SP should also be great places. Next time...

30 Aug 2004: So far in my visual and photography astro sessions I've only very roughly aligned my telescope's mount with the polar axis (where the sky appears to rotate around). For visual work (looking through the telescope), the alignment of the telescope mount really doesn't matter much at all. With a poorly aligned mount, an object will slowly drift out of the eyepiece field of view. With the help of the computer controlled drive, all I have to do to recenter an object is reselect it with the electronic hand controller.

For astrophotography, keeping an object in exactly the same place in the field of fiew is critical for the long length exposures required for dim night sky objects. With my previous rough alignments, I've relied on autoguiding to keep the stars in the same place in the camera's field of view. While this "brute force" method keeps your guidestar centered, if the alignment is off, the starfield that you're taking a picture of actually rotates slightly. I've seen this on some of my longer images in the past. I want to take the best images possible, so the way to do that is to combine the best possible telescope mount alignment with autoguiding.

The most accurate way to align the scope is using a drift alignment. There are lots of explanations on the web about how to drift align your scope. One of the easiest to understand is described in Andy's Shot Glass article page. I modified his procedure to take advantage of my Meade LPI and GuideDog software. Andy talks about using a reticle eyepiece (with crosshairs) to tell which way the star drifts. Instead of buying a new eyepiece (at $150 or so), I used LPI with the new version of GuideDog (1.0.6). GuideDog now has a set of double reticle lines that you can place over a star and watch it move. I centered a star in the LPI field of view and locked onto it similar to the first step in autoguiding. Instead of telling GuideDog to guide, I called up the reticle lines (right click on the star) and used them along with GuideDog's error reporting to tell me the drift of the star over up to a 5 minute period. Instead of getting too detailed on the procedure here, I recommend watching Andy's video linked above.

This was my first real drift alignment and it took about an hour to complete. However after the alignment, the stars stayed almost perfectly under the crosshairs for over 5 minutes! That's without any autoguiding! Stars do wobble around a little bit due to periodic error in the gear drive of the telescope mount.

With an accurate drift alignment and GuideDog/LPI autoguiding, my scope maintained within +/-1 arc-second for over 30 minutes!

I had only planned to take a couple photos, but after seeing the results, I stayed out for about 3 hours. I shot photos first unguided of M13. M13 is a very bright globular cluster. I wanted to see what results were possible with a drift aligned scope without autoguiding. After that, I tried NGC6960, the Easter Veil Nebula. As I expected, the nebula was too dim to see in the full moon Las Vegas sky. Oh well. After that I shot unguided and autoguided images of M57, the Ring Nebula. A full moon night is never when you want to shoot pictures of very dim deep sky objects, but I figured I could still get some good learning even with less than optimum conditions. I guided off of a star about 44 arc-minutes away. Like I figured before, this is about the max distance away I can autoguide on and still get the object in the camera field of view. Ideally, I'd like to center the object I'm shooting in the camera field of view. At 44 arc-min off, M57 was at the far edge of the camera image.

25 Aug 2004: I've been very busy at work the past couple weeks & night flying this week, so I haven't had a chance to get out with the scope. I have had a few minutes during my night flights this week to make a few sky observations though. Tonight my flight called for me to be at 40,000' in the northern part of the Nellis Range (about 38N, 116W) If you check out a sky pollution chart, those coordinates (on the ground) show one of the darkest places in the world. On the Bortle Sky Pollution chart, the sky there rates as a 1 or "Black." To quote John Bortle, "If you are observing on a grass-covered field bordered by trees, your telescope, companions, and vehicle are almost totally invisible. This is an observer's Nirvana!" People often speak of the incredible skies at Mt Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The observatories there are slightly above 13,700 ft in altitude. I haven't been there, but there's no way my views tonight weren't better. At 40,000', you are above the vast majority of the air in the atmosphere.

The first thing I noticed that stood out was Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. It looked like a red fireball in the sky! From my house in Vegas, Arcturus is definately viewable, but the color is completely washed out from all the light pollution. At 40,000' Arcturus' color was striking. Looking to the south, Antares in Scorpio was also very red. From home I can barely make out Antares on a no-moon night because of the Vegas Strip lights. Even with an 87% illuminated moon, the milky way was clearly visible - spaning the sky and extending in width overhead almost all the way from Delphinus to Lyra!

My attempts to plan a dark sky weekend trip seem to always be thwarted by work or other important things. September's dark sky weekend trip is off. Tonight has me really hoping for October now...

8 Aug 2004: Tonight's late moonrise and relatively low moon illumination prompted me to get outside to take some more photos. I spent almost the entire night shooting shots of Messier 27, the Dumbell Nebula. It was more important tonight to figure out how to get my equipment set up correctly to get the photos I wanted than it was to actually get great photos. There were several things I wanted to learn, or at least work on: mount alignment, autoguiding setup and focusing.

The mount on my telescope is a German Equatorial type mount. What does that mean? Well, in a nutshell, once you align the mount correctly, it rotates on exactly the same axis that the sky does. Polaris, the North Star, sits very close to the actual rotational axis of the earth (the North Celestial Pole). The act of aligning the scope to this axis is usually referred to as polar aligning. Until tonight, my polar aligning of the scope has been just aiming the main scope directly at Polaris. This is close enough if all you're doing is looking through the eyepiece. Problems arrise when you are trying to take long exposure photographs though. Polaris is actually 44.15 arc-minutes (about 0.75 degrees) away from the Celestial North Pole. So, my scope has always been almost a degree off in it's alignment. Because of this "misalignment," stars drift fairly quickly in the field of view of the scope.

There are several methods of accurately polar aligning a scope. Drift Alignment is probably the most common alignment technique. The hand controller in my Celestron mount has another technique that I tried tonight. It's outlined in the user manual and I tried it tonight. While I still didn't do a perfect alignment (mostly because I was impatient about it), my mount was definately the most accurately aligned it's ever been. I'll try drift alignment sometime soon. Autoguiding can do alot towards fixing alignment errors, but the closer you can get, the better your photos will be.

I'm still using my Meade LPI coupled with a Celestron Radial Guider for autoguiding. One interesting part about that setup is the focus of your autoguider (LPI for me) and your main camera (Canon Digital Rebel) are tied together with the focus knob of the scope since they both share the same optical path. It'd be nice to aim my scope at an object, start autoguiding and then worry about getting perfect focus for my main camera. That way, focus is the last thing you touched and the odds it's right-on are higher. Since my LPI focus changes with my main camera focus, I have to do it the other way. So, focusing the main camera is first...

I've spent several nights using DSLR Focus and I'm extremely pleased with it. I'm currently using Version 2.7.5, but rumor is version 3 will be out soon and has serveral nice improvements. I noticed on my last night out taking photos that I couldn't get the entire image focused at once. If I had the center focused, the the edges would be out of focus...if I had one edge in focus everything else would be out of focus...not fun! So, after a little research, I discovered the problem was my T-adapter. The T-adapter has threads on one side to screw into the Radial Guider and a lens-type adapter on the other side to lock into my Digital Rebel. I noticed that if I nudged the camera, I could make it turn a degree or so. The adapter I bought actually has a little slop in it that allows the camera to rotate a little. After further investigation (turning the back porch light on), I found that the camera could also twist forwards and backwards while it was attached the telescope. This twisting moves the focus plane of the camera and was definately the largest contributor to my focus problems. I took the T-adapter off and found that the set screw in it were loose that held the threads in place. After tightening those screws, the camera no longer rocks forwards and backwards. It still can rotate about a degree, but that only changes the rotation of the image slightly, not the actual focus. I left the T-adapter alone for the rest of the night - I figured I'd save something to work on for when I wasn't actually trying to take photos. After I tightened the T-adapter, the focus was very close to the same across the photo frame.

The last thing I cared about tonight was autoguiding. A very important key, for me anyway, for great long exposure photographs through the telescope is having autoguiding working perfectly. I haven't found ANYTHING written down on where the actual radial guider field of view is in relation to the telescope field of view, so I did some experiementing. With my 2000mm telescope, the radial guider can adjust it's field of view from about 30 to 45 arc-minutes away from the object you are centered on (i.e. what you're taking photos of). With the Meade LPI and GuideDog, I need a star that's about a magnitude 6 or brighter for the LPI to see it. In future versions of GuideDog, you can utilize the long exposure capabilities of the LPI. This should expand the guidestar capabilities quite a bit. For now, I need a mag 6 or brighter guidestar ideally 30-45 arc-minutes (1/2 to 3/4 degree) away from what I'm trying to take a photo of.

I found a great online database by either NASA or the US Naval Observatory that lets you specify an object and search for stars of given magnitudes within specific distances. Instead of using skychart software and measuring between stars and looking up each magnitude, this database just outputs the position, distance and magnitude of the guidestars for you to use. I managed to not save the link to the site, but once I find it again, I'll post it here. Using this, I found information on the one mag 6 or brighter star within 45 arc-min of M27. This was the star I used for my autoguiding tonight.

The easiest way I found to get the guidestar in the field of view of the radial guider was to position the guidestar about 1/4 to 1/3 out from the center of my finder scope. Once the star is there, just rotate the radial guider until the finder sticks out towards the guidestar as viewed through the finder scope. Lots of words, I know, but here's a drawing of a view through the finder scope of what I'm talking about.

Finderscope view of guidestar for Celestron Radial Guider

The dot just to the bottom right of center represents your guidestar of choice. Once you have the gudiestar here, just turn the radial guider to point toward this star. For this example, the Radial Guider guide port should point down and right. The star should show up in your eyepiece in the radial guider. Once I center the star in your radial guider, I lock down its adjustment screws and install the LPI. The guidestar should then show up on the computer. Using this technique I can now have my scope autoguiding on an object in a few minutes. Easy!

I did learn alot tonight and I even shot some photos too. Like I said earlier, Messier 27 was my object of choice tonight. Sadly, the light pollution in Las Vegas is so bad, that I wasn't able to get much exposure length. I took photos in length from 1 minute up to 5 minutes as ISO settings of 400 to 3200. At 3 minutes and ISO 3200, the images are almost totally white from overexposure. The max shot with usable info seemed to be about 2 minutes at ISO 1600, but even those shots are very washed out. I still have processing work to do, but so far my photos are showing way more background light influence than actual nebulosity out of M27. It looks like I have the techniques down to get good photos...

I just need to get out of the city!

The other half of good digital astrophotographs is post-processing. Chris Hendren just added a great explaination of processing of digital astrophotographs to his web site. I'm sure I can take the M27 photos I shot & get something out of them, but if I can make a trip to a place with a dark sky, my results will definately improve dramatically.

24 Jul 2004: Tanya & I went to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area tonight to get views through the telescope in darker skies. There were about 15 other people at the main visitor center with telescopes. There were several people with new scopes (like myself), but most had spent at least a year with their scopes. Geary Keilman, the president of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society, was kind enough to let me use his Televue Panoptic 19mm and Televue 9mm Nagler eyepieces in my telecope. These eyepieces yielded 107x and 226x power respectively with my Celestron C8-SGT scope. My E-Lux 25mm Plossl eyepiece provides 81x, so the difference was great to see. Both eyepieces were amazing. When looking at Jupiter, my eyepiece actually showed more detail but Jupiter was very low on the horizon and didn't really allow for high magnification. When looking at objects higher in the sky, such as the globular clusters M13 and M22, many more stars were visible with either of the Televue eyepieces. You get what you pay for - these eyepieces cost roughly $200 a piece! Tonight I did notice that after my collimation the other day, the detail on the moon and Jupiter is much better than it was. Views of the moon with the 9mm Nagler felt like you were in orbit around the moon.

We spent some time looking through other people's scopes at the star party. We looked through a Meade Starfinder 16" Dobsonian telescope at the galaxies M81 and M82. A 16" Dob gathers roughly 4 times the light my 8" scope does and the difference was amazing. Through my 8" telescope, they are visible as cloudy spots, but through the 16" Dobsonian, I could clearly make out detail on both galaxies. The 16" Dob gathered so much light that the background sky through the eyepiece was bright.

I took out my photo equipment to snap a few photos of Messier 8, a Diffuse Neblua in Sagittarius. M8 is in the southern sky and because of the Las Vegas Strip lights, is almost unviewable from my house. Because of all the people walking around nearby, my scope wasn't stable enough to get any good photos, so I put my camera away and put my eyepiece back on for the rest of the night. Next time, I won't even bother bringing my photo equipment - except for maybe my LPI if planets are viewable.

Another scope of note was a Meade LX200GPS 10" Schmidt-Cassegrain. It's fork mount slewed across the sky to new objects very quickly. The scope was very nice to look though (roughly the same as my C8) and had a powered focuser and a focus lock which gave very precise focus ability. If this scope was mounted on an equatorial mount, it would be great for long exposure photography.

We looked at Messier 4, M6, M8, M11, M13, M20, M27, M31, M57, M81, M82, M101, the Moon and Jupiter tonight through my scope.

22 Jul 2004: Tonight was a relatively short night out with the scope. I collimated my telescope for the first time. Collimation aligns the mirrors of the scope so that all the light arrives exactly where it is supposed to. If everything is aligned correctly, stars become more pinpoint and detail on planets and the moon stand out more. I followed the procedure in the Celestron manual for collimation. It was easy and even reading the directions while I was doing it, it only took about 20 minutes. The moon was up, so seeing very dark objects was difficult. My collimation was only off slightly, but afterwards it was much easier to break out individual stars in star clusters like M13.

9 Jul 2004: Still another first...tonight was my first night to attempt to image a deep sky object using autoguiding via Guide Dog and long exposure camera control with DSLR Focus and my Canon 300D Digital Rebel. The Yahoo Group Digital Astro has monthly contests & this month is Messier 27, the Dumbell Nebula. So, M27 is where I started. After aligning my scope I worked for well over an hour trying to find a star bright enough to guide on close enough to M27 to take a photo of it. The star SAO88016 is less than half a degree away, but at mag 5.7 it just wasn't bright enough to guide on. I could get the star to display in my guiding software, but it just wasn't quite bright enough. Maybe on a darker night (out of Vegas) it'll work.

I did shoot several photos of M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, that came out ok. It is right in the heart of the Las Vegas strip light pollution from where my house is, so my images were very limited in exposure length. Still, I was able to take 3x2 minute and 3x3 minute exposures to stack together. You can check out the final product at my Astrophotography page.

7 Jul 2004: Tonight was my first night out using a piece of software called DSLR Focus. It's made for Canon EOS digital camera owners and lets you do very precise focusing through your telescope and allows for completely automated extended exposures. Focusing is one of the most important and easily messed up aspects of astrophotography. DSLR Focus lets you take a series of photos and pick a star to focus on. It downloads an image and analizes the star and plots out data on it's focus. It also gives you a continually updated comparison of your focusing images. Besides the focusing, it lets you completely automate your camera control. Using the camera supplied USB cable and a home made paralllel shutter release cable (directions on the DSLR Focus web site), it let me take hours worth of photos without ever having to go near my camera. With just a USB cable, you can take images up to the camera's programmed maximum of 30 seconds. With the parallel cable and DSLR Focus, the exposure time is unlimited.

Like I said, I took many photos, but I was really just testing out my system. I did an autoguiding test using LPI and Guide Dog in a region of Ursa Major. I took several pictures from 30 seconds to 5 minutes in length to look at autoguiding errors and exposure limits. I was very pleased that even in the 5 minute long exposure, the stars formed perfect circles even when viewed at full scale.

Autoguided image in Ursa Major. Cropped, but still scaled at 100%.

I also did some experimenting on how dim of a star I can use to autoguide on. In the mag 3-3.5 skies of Las Vegas I was able to autoguide on several mag 5 stars without a problem using Guide Dog and Meade LPI. A mag 5 star is still fairly bright, so that may limit which deep sky objects I can autoguide close enough to to take photos.

1 Jul 2004: Today I picked up a Canon EOS 300D Digital Rebel. It's a 6.3 megapixel SLR camera and takes amazing daytime and astro photos. I stayed up nearly all night experimenting with the camera. Without a remote shutter release, I'm limited to taking photos of 30 seconds of less. I did take a couple of images longer than that using silicone tubing and a piece of rubber to hold down the shutter button. I plan on making a parallel cable to allow computer control of the shutter for longer than 30 second exposures.

I took photos of the full Moon, Messier 13 (M13), M57, M27, M51, the Little Dumbell and more. See my photos here!

26 Jun 2004: Tonight was a astrophotography experiment night. I successfully got my scope to autoguide for more than an hour!

Most of the reading I've done and talking with other AS mount owners centered around autoguiding through the autoguide port on the goto mount. For most (free) computer programs out there, this requires contruction of an autoguiding interface box and/or cable. I already had the Celestron serial cable to connect my computer to the hand controller, but I didn't find any info on autoguiding through that cable. Well you certainly can autoguide with the stock Celestron serial cable...here's how I did it:

Hardware:
Celestron C8-SGT (HC 3.04/MC 5.04)
Compaq PIII laptop (any will do)
Belkin USB to Serial converter ($30)
Celestron RS-232 serial cable #93920 ($30)
Meade LPI ($150 - any webcam with an eyepiece mount will do)
Celestron Radial Guider ($100 - need either an off axis guider or a separate guidescope)
Belkin USB extension cables ($10 each - one each for LPI & serial converter)
Scopetronix T-to-1.25" eyepiece adapter ($25 - to look through an EP while guiding!)
Software:
GuideDog (Free - http://www.barkosoftware.com/)
ASCOM Platform v3.0 (Free - http://ascom-standards.org)
ASCOM Celestron beta driver (Free - same web page)

GuideDog can't (yet) use any of the "long" exposure settings of LPI. It looks like it just goes with an auto or default setting. Rumor has it that GuideDog will be updated in the future to use the LPI's full feature set. Guidedog talks through the ASCOM driver...through the hand controller to the Celestron mount with no problems. I misaligned my scope slightly and aimed it roughly at Caph. I put the LPI in the guiding port of the radial guider & moved it around until I found a good star. I didn't use Caph (Mag 2- ish), but I don't know exactly what star or what magnitude it was...something dimmer than Caph.

Once I got the X-Y lined up right with the LPI everything worked great. It tracked the guidestar for an hour before I turned off the guiding. I plotted the last couple minutes of GuideDog reported guiding errors, including the errors after I turned off autoguiding: Click here for the plot.

I also got a chance to check out some imaging with Meade's LPI. LPI is "Lunar and Planetary Imager" and that's what it's best at. I tried some deep sky images (nebulas, star clusters) with no luck at all, but it did a good job at imaging the moon. Below is a picture of Copernicus, a huge crater on the moon. It was taken with my Meade LPI through autostar suite. Details are: Time 11:00pm local, gain 67%, offset 43, exposure .125 sec, 150 of 194 images taken in 412 seconds, size doubled in Photoshop, combined in Registax2, Unsharp Mask filtered and size reduced back to original in Photoshop.


22 Jun 2004: Another great night at the scope. 1 hour 4 minutes of viewing and 22 Messier objects! In no particular order, they were: M13 (always my starting point), M3, M5, M8, M10, M14, M15, M17, M18, M19, M21, M81, M82, M83, M84, M85, M86, M87, M88, M89, M92, M101, and maybe M90 & M91. More details later.

21 Jun 2004: My camera adapters and more arrived from Scopetronix today! I spent much of the evening figuring out how it all went together and figuring out where the approximate focus was for several of the camera setups. Not much time was actually spent looking at the sky. The easiest thing I could think of to take a photo of was Jupiter, so I did try my hand at that. I mounted my Canon G2 with the Scopetronix attachment kit for my 1-1/4" DSLR eyepiece projection adapter. I used my 25mm eyepiece for my camera work and connected my laptop to the camera for control & downloading of photos. To focus the eyepiece projection adapter, I removed the camera and looked directly through the eyepiece. Once that focus looked good, I reconnected the camera and focused it at infinity. With a camera, such as the G2, with a fixed lens this setup is actually called afocal astrophotography. The telescope has an eyepiece and functions as a complete unit by itself. The camera is set up to merely take a picture of what comes out of the eyepiece (just like what your eye would see). The DSLR was not really meant for use with the G2 (or any afocal use really), but it does work. I'll try my hand at using my 35mm SLR camera later in both prime focus and eyepiece projection modes of the Scopetronix DSLR adapter.

I spent alot of time just trying different ways to take pictures with the G2 setup. It's definately not optimum. I don't have a computer program that lets me command exposure or f-stop directly, so I ended up removing the link to the laptop and setting the camera up and taking pictures by hand. At first I used the release timer on the G2 to keep from shaking the telescope when I took pictures. After a while I remembered the camera came with a remote control After digging for that for a while, I set the camera on remote mode & did all my triggering from the remote. It still only lets you take a photo about once every 5-10 seconds - there's still room for improvement.

After about 100 single frame images to establish a good exposure and technique for triggering the photos, I shot a series of 15 images from 9:45 - 9:47pm. Camera settings for each image were 1/200 sec, f4, zoom 2.5x (max optical zoom), ISO 100, 2272x1704 pixels, superfine JPG. I've been told that for imaging Jupiter after about 2 minutes, the planets rotation becomes a problem when adding photos toghter. I took these 15 images and imported them into Registax. In Registax I aligned, stacked, and wavelet processed the images. This process essentially adds the photos together which gives you a similar result to taking a longer picture. The details that are visible in all 15 photos are enhanced and the details only visible in 1 or 2 photos are all but removed. My final photo isn't that great, but for a first try I guess it'll have to do. Here it is!


20 Jun 2004: I started tonight at 10:45pm local & got everything set up fairly quickly. I still didn't do much of a polar alignment - I eyeballed it within about 3 deg and let the computer alignment wory about the rest. I started again with Jupiter then M13. It's very reassuring to get teh alignment complete, hit 'goto M13' and see it appear in the center of the eyepiece. By 10:56pm I was viewing Messier objects. Next was M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. I could see clouds at both centers of the spiral galaxies, but no real detail besides that. M49, an eliptical galaxy, viewed as a very small faint cloud with lots (15+) of faint neighboring stars. The globular cluster M53 (11:02pm) was very faint, but many individual stars were visible in the medium sized cluster. M56 was very easy to see (much to my surprise - it's Mag 8.7) and had several bright stars nearby (autoguide stars for later?). I was shocked and very pleased to see M57, the Ring Nebula. It forms a 1 minute wide donut shaped nebula. My wife & our weekend family visitors all later took a look at M57 and were amazed how much it looked like the photo from a book I have of it. I could not see the stars inside the nebula's ring however. Marching right down the list, M58, a spiral galaxy (Mag 9.9!) was visible, but only about 1/4 of the galaxy's spread was really distinguishable. M59, another spiral galaxy (Mag 10), only looked like a blurry star. At 11:22pm I sighted in M62, a globular cluster. The further south I looked, the worse the view got because of the super birght Las Vegas lights, so even though M62 is a fairly bright object, it was small and only formed a clear cloud with no distinguishable stars. Moving away from the city lights a little, M62, the Sunflower Galaxy, looked much the same as M62 even though it is many times dimmer. With 11 Messier objects down and less than 30 minutes into my viewing I was feeling great about the capabilities of my new telescope. Press on!!

I continued straight down the M-list to M64. I could see all of the Black Eye Galaxy's neighboring stars, but nothing at all of the actual galaxy. M65 brought me to the west into the Leo constellation. Jupiter is in Leo and it's brightness caused some problems, but viewing here was much better than in the south. I couldn't make anything out of M65, M66, M67, M68 or M69. After that string of no luck, I did a quick comtpuer realignment of the scope and continued. M70, was easy to see even though the Vegas lights. It made me wonder if my alignment was bad & I had just missed the last 5 objects altogether. I didn't backtrack though. M70 was small, but easy to see and had several fairly bright stars closeby (again, maybe future guidestars).

After M70, I did a little more work making sure the scope was aligned ok. After a few minutes I started back at M7, Ptolemy's Cluster. M7 is a huge open cluster with thousands of very bright stars. Next was M6, the butterfly cluster. It looked great and filled the better part of my 25mm eyepiece. I counted only about 10 individual stars in M12 within the cloud of the globular cluster. I expected to see more stars - maybe my eyes were getting tired. The pictures I'd seen of M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, weren't all that spectacular, so I wasn't expecting much, but it was NICE! There were THOUSANDS of visible stars in the cluster. I definately want to take photos of M11 now! At 12:30am, I slewed to my last object of the night, M9. It's again in the south, so light pollution was an issue, but the cluster was easy to see. It was however faint and small and there were no bright stars in the eyepiece.

This night was actually a bonus viewing night and I got to see a ton of Messier objects. In an hour and 34 minutes I looked at 17 M's and made attempts to see at least 5 others. Jupiter is still the dominant figure in the sky at sunset and throughout the early night. I'm still getting used to the scope (and I probably will be for quite some time), but it's very easy to bounce along through the objects in the database. Taking your time to get a good alignment looks like it'll save some headaches later in your viewing night unless you are just going to look for a very short while. I'm supposed to get my camera accessories on Monday...

19 Jun 2004: Tonight was my first real viewing night with my new C8. It was amazing! The largest scope I've owned in the past was a 4.5" Newtonian - the difference was amazing. Before dark, I brought my rig onto our backyard balcony. I leveled the mount, did a rough alignment with North and set the polar axis of the scope with my best guess where Polaris was. I fired up the Nextar handset and with my handheld GPS I entered my exact lat/long position and time. I turned off the scope & waited until after dark to go back to it. About 9:30pm I turned the scope back on, did a very rough polar alignment, selected "Last Alignment" again from the handset and selected goto Jupiter. The Last Alignment feature I keep using is a way to get the telescope to skip the alignment process. I still had never done an actual alignment, but Jupiter was in the finder scope. I centered Jupiter up and instantly was able to see the four Galilean moons again. I guess I was expecting the same image I saw on the 17th - I didn't even think about how bad the skies were then & how good the skies were now. The bands on Jupiter were clearly visible! With my 25mm eyepiece I didn't have enough magnification to see the the red spot. In fact I don't even know for sure if it was on our side of the planet when I was viewing. After some gently prodding from my wife, I joined her & two of our friends that were over for some relaxation in the hot tub. I told them that Jupiter's bands were visible along with four moons, so after we were sufficiently cooked, we all went up on the balcony & took another look. Jupiter had drifter to the outer 1/3 of the eyepiece (in about an hour..not bad for not having a computer alignment yet), so I centered it back up and eveyone took turns viewing.

Much to my surprise, one of our friends asked if we could look at Messier 13..it was his dad's favorite. So, I decided to go through the comtpuer alignment of the scope for the first time. I selected Auto Align from the handset. After aligning Arturus, Antares and Vega the handset gave me a "Align Successful" message & I was off to the races. I selected M13 and hit enter. The mount came alive - we all watched it move across the sky. After it stopped I looked through the eyepiece & found M13, the Hercules cluster, perfectly centered! M13 is a Globular cluster of thousands of stars. Everyone again took a look and we were amazed how many stars we could make out. The 25mm stock ELux Plossl eyepiece gave a near perfect magnification (81x) for viewing the cluster.

I grabbed a printout of tonight's sky from Astronomy Daily and stared down the list of Messier objects viewable tonight. M16 was next and again the goto command brought it directly to the center of the eyepiece. The open cluster of stars was clearly visible, but I didn't know the Eagle Nebula was right next to the open cluster, so we didn't even look for a hint of it. The Hubble SCT images of the Eagle Nebula are beautiful - I'll have to go back. M17, the Swan Nebula, was visible as a faint gray cloud spanning most of the eyepiece. M18, an open cluster, was next and was more striking than I expected. It's stars formed a very bright and easily recognizable pattern. M19, a globular cluster, was considerably smaller than anything we viewed tonight, but still more stars than we could count were visible.

After so many successful Messier objects in a row, we were getting excited. I selected M20 & the results were...not so good. The scope aimed itself right at the ground under the tripod & continued to slew until the drive motor cases contacted each other! I hit Undo (and every other button on the controller) to stop the slewing. I tried to slew the scope by hand to back away from it's crippling aimpoint, but in my button mashing I set the slew rate to 1 (half the speed that the stars move across the sky) and I hadn't learned how to change the manual slewing rate. I selected M13 again and the scope righted itself and pointed nearly straight up back at M13. The whole ordeal messed up the alignment a little, but M13 was still within the field of view of the eyepiece. We took a break for a few minutes to make sure the scope and mount were ok and looked up in the instruction manual how to change the manual slewing rate (rate key then a number). We didn't realign the scope since it was still close. With all still ok, we kept on through the Messier objects. Our wives did give up on us for the night though (it was close to midnight).

We looked at M13 again, then selected M21 - an open cluster in Sagittarius. It was within the eyepiece, but not centered. M21 spanned an area about twice that of M19 and gave us an incentive to keep going. M22, a globular cluster also in Sagittarius, was next. It's covers even more area than M21. Since it's a globular cluster, it has many, many stars - some viewable as a "cloud" and others clear to see. M23, another open cluster, was next and was still bigger. M24, a Milky Way star cloud, was too big to see it all with the eyepiece, but was visible as many faint stars with a very faint cloud throughout the region. Since we hadn't looked at a nebula so far, we decided to skip M25 & M26 to look at M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. We M27 expected it to be out of our visual capabilities with the scope, but were pleasantly surprised again to see the almost oval shaped cloud of the nebula. We spent about 10 minutes looking at the nebula, scanning around to see it's star neighbors. I can't wait to photograph it! M28 was next - back to a globular cluster. M28 was viewable as a fairly large (approx 1/2 the field of view) cluster with more stars than we could count.

That marked the end of the night - with our wives calling it quits for us. In all, it was a VERY successful viewing night with about 2 1/2 hours of actual viewing time and 11 Messier objects viewed along with Jupiter and 4 of it's moons. I'm anxious to get working through the rest of the Messier objects and very excited to start taking photos of the sky! I'm still debating how I'm going to do my autoguiding, but Meade's LPI Autostar suite and a QuickCam Pro 4000 with Guidedog or K3CCD Tools are among the leading contenders.

17 Jun 2004: After the last week of doing serious thinking about how long I really wanted to wait for my scope and several great conversations with owners of other telescopes I changed my mind on the Meade LXD75. I called ScopeCity's main office in Simi Valley, CA and asked about their stock of Celestron scopes. After hearing the good news that they had them in stock, I drove down to the Las Vegas store and picked up my brand new Celestron C8-SGT Advanced Series telescope. It's very similar in specs to the Meade LXD75 - except that I have it! It's an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a German Equatorial mount. ScopeCity had a special on the scope and included a free 2" diagonal, a 45 degree correct image diagonal, a moon filter, a computer link cable (RS-232), and a pen/flashlight combo. I already planned on getting the RS-232 cable and a 2" diagonal, so that was happily a few less things I had to buy. The Celestron scope doesn't come with a polar axis finder (for alignment of the telescope with the Earth's rotation) or any kind of imaging or autoguiding setup (the Meade LXD75 comes with them), so I bought a polar axis finder scope ($49). I plan on figuring out a good (cheap!) autoguiding setup soon.

I brought the scope's 3 boxes home and set it up with no problems except it lacked the instruction manual. Celestron has the manual available on their website, so I just downloaded it and printed out my own copy. The weather was horrible, so I didn't have much hope of actually getting to use my telescope. I also ordered a slew of accessories from ScopeTronix. I orderd a Celestron Radial Guider, a Scopetronix DSLR projection and afocal astrophotography mount with adapters for my Canon EOS A2 35mm camera and Canon G2 digital camera. To mate the DSLR mount to the Radial Guider, I ordered a T-mount to eyepiece adapter.

The winds were 36mph with gusts to 47mph & almost complete cloud cover...almost. I brought the scope out to the backyard and pointed it roughy at Polaris (couldn't see it). I selected last alignment & slewed over to Jupiter using the hand control's arrow keys. Jupiter was the only thing in the sky I could see visually. After a few fits with my very poor polar & finder scope alignment I centered Jupiter up.

It was a good first light. Even in the bad conditions Jupiter was there with Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto all lined up (with Callisto hanging out much further than the other kids)! I went inside & told my wife I could see Jupiter & 4 moons. She ran right out to take a look. I only have the stock 25mm EP - I might have to buy more soon. :)

I can't wait to get back outside!

9 Jun 2004: Today I placed the order for my new telescope. It's a Meade LXD75 8" Scmidt-Cassegrain with Ultra High Transmission Coatings (UHTC). The telescope is so new, they aren't even shipping yet. I was told I was the first person to order one from Scope City. Meade is advertising a shipping date of "the end of June 2004" for the telescopes, however, the latest rumor on the actual shipping date is about 2 months from now. The scope comes equipped with the Lunar Planetary Imager (LPI) and the Autostar software suite. LPI is a modified webcam for photography and for use as a low budget telescope auto-guiding system. I also plan on fitting my scope with a piggy back camera mount, a projection & T-mount for my Canon A2 35mm camera, and an Afocal mount for my Canon G2 digital camera. Previous Meade telescope releases have happened considerably later than the planned date - hopefully this telescope won't be the same. The waiting game starts now.