I've always been interested in the stars, but obviously South West London is a less-than-ideal place to indulge.

Feb 2018 Edit: Having said that, I nonetheless did get myself a modest little telescope for SW London, and I must admit it is enjoyable. The comparison between SW London and SW Ireland is nothing if not interesting...

The contrast makes our place in South West Cork, which is very dark, (Bortle 3 evidently) all the more enjoyable. Where we are 20 miles SW of London, it's Bortle 6-7.



Deep Sky Photography 1st Attempt: M31 Andromeda Galaxy

I've spent much of the last 10 years combining two habits: birdwatching and photography, and I've collected a medley of telephoto lenses to help. So with my renewed interest in astronomy, it was only a matter of time before a deep-sky object became too tempting to resist.

Apparently when doing this for the first time, most nascent astro-imagers choose the Great Nebula in Orion, M42, as their first target. I can understand why. It and the Pleiades, M45, are the only Messier Objects plainly visible to the naked eye under almost any conditions. But whenever I've seen good photographs of the Great Nebula I've always thought that capturing it well would be rather difficult. So it certainly wasn't my intended first target.

That honour belonged to the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which is almost the perfect size in the sky for my 300mm f/2.8 lens and Canon 7Dmk2, herewith presented:

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Messier 31, The Andromeda Galaxy. Canon EOS7Dmk2 + 300mm f/2.8L mk1. 9 x 50secs @ f/2.8 ISO 1600.


This image was constructed using nine separate exposures of around 50 seconds each, with the target tracked across the sky during each one using my AZ-EQ6 GT in September 2017 in Ballylynchy near Baltimore in SW Ireland, a very dark place. I took 12 "subs" in all, but 3 were spoiled by wind-gusts or somesuch, so I deleted them. Image-stacking and some processing was done in PixInsight and I finished it off in Photoshop.

Herewith the "rig" used:

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Nightscape Pictures - Starting Out
by Magnus, aged 53.9

from.. click for bigger image ..to..  click for bigger image


and from ...  click for bigger image .. to [watch this space] .. via ..  click for bigger image


My wife is Irish, and in 2015 we bought a small old stone cottage a couple of miles from Baltimore in South West Cork, about as SW as you can get in Ireland. Walking back from the pub one November night, I was SHOCKED by the sheer blackness of the night sky and the dazzling array of stars. Constellations were not even recognizable, drowned out in the sea of stars. My interest in astronomy suddenly resurfaced.

Round 1 – a Horrid Mess

Fast-forward to a summer night a while later, once the cottage had been made habitable. Looking up, I was aware of a streak of pale cloud slightly spoiling the dark sky. Of course, this was the Milky Way, which I hadn’t seen for donkey’s years! Disappointment turned to awe. Out there, the Milky Way is easily visible to the naked eye even straight after leaving a bright room. I thought “I wonder if I can photograph that?”. Being a keen photographer, I reckoned I ‘knew a bit’ about photography – it turned out “you know nothing, Jon Snow”.

Nonetheless I quickly retrieved my camera, attached my fastest wide zoom lens, plonked it onto a tripod and pointed it up. Only then did I think: “Er, what settings to use?”. Obviously the widest aperture and its widest angle (24mm f/2.8) and ISO 3200 (because it seemed "about right"). I chose 30 seconds exposure, but was aware that stars might streak, as the earth rotates noticeably over even as little as a half-minute.

The result, from early August 2016, is here, my first Milky Way image, looking up SSW at around 1am.

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It’s a horrid mess of a picture. Yes, you can see the Milky Way, but that’s about it: out of focus, no other context, no colour, heavily streaked stars, noisy, boosted to buggery in Photoshop. Funnily enough, for a while I was quite impressed, though I didn’t really solicit opinions. If you've never photographed a night sky before, you too may be impressed, but this is really not very good.

Round 2 – 8.5/10 for Composition, 3/10 for Execution

Five months later, Christmas 2016, I had another go. It's obviously a slightly different shot, but it was taken from the same patio as above. My intention was to get the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy visible in a recognizably local setting.

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I used the same set-up as Round 1, but shorter exposure and lower ISO: 30s at f/2.8 and ISO 1600. I showed this picture around and received many compliments, it’s undoubtedly more interesting. Personally I like it, but only as a small image. Blown up, it’s unpleasantly grainy and the star-trailing is evident, especially top-left (click the picture and a full-size image will open, it'll be obvious). To make the Milky Way stand out, I had to really “stretch” the faint detail, exacerbating the noise.

Describing the scene: The bump towards the left with two bright lights is Mount Gabriel, atop which sits Europe’s western-most air traffic control radar domes. The brightness at far left is the town of Schull, and looking right from Mt Gabriel we have the bright glow of Ballydehob, Whiddy Island behind the hills (the floodlit white of a major oil terminal, Ireland's strategic oil reserve), then Bantry, an extended yellow glare behind the hills. Finally at the right edge (by now looking due North) and this side of the hills, the village of Church Cross.

Looking up, above Mt Gabriel the bright smudge is the Andromeda Galaxy which, at 2.5 million light-years away, is the most distant thing visible to the naked eye [footnote]. Together with the Milky Way, it was chiefly what I wanted to catch in the photo, if possible. This is the “boring side” of the Milky Way which unfortunately is the only bit we get to see in the Northern Hemisphere winter. Even this, though, is evident to the naked eye from Ballylynchy. By the way, if you know your sky, you might also be able to spot the Triangulum Galaxy amongst all the noise. It's there.

Round 3a - 5/10 for composition, but much better execution: 8/10 I reckon

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This is the same scene as before, but at a different time of year (September 2017, rather than the New Year of the Andromeda picture). The dominating night-sky feature is now not Andromeda or the Milky Way, but The Plough in Ursa Major, whose "saucepan end" is nearly vertical, pointing up towards Polaris, i.e. approximately Due North. Exposure was 45 seconds on the Samyang 24mm f/1.4, ISO 1600 with an AstroTrac.

It's not as pleasing a picture as the Andromeda/Milky Way one, but it is much better executed. The graininess is gone and the sky has a liquid quality that's beautiful. Compositionally it's markedly inferior, way too much deep black foreground, not enough sky. But, the sky colour is correct: orangeish at the horizon (light pollution) and above the horizon a greenish glow that's 558nm Oxygen-emission "airglow", if our eyes were sensitive enough they'd notice it. And finally the "fading to black" of the lovely West Cork night sky and its amazing starscape.

Particularly pleasing for this lens is that if you look really closely at the larger linked image you can make out M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, even its companion. For a 24mm lens, that's impressive. I obviously got a good copy of this lens.

In due course, I hope around Christmas 2017 Christmas 2018, I'll re-take this with the Milky Way and Andromeda (and Triangulum) back in. Also my latest equipment addition, a heavy-duty Ball Head (Sirui k-40x) for the top part of my AstroTrac set-up, should allow me more easily to point the camera at the scene I want with fewer contortions - the orientation of the earth's equatorial plane this far North means the whole tripod-top set-up must be angled over at 39 degrees!

Update (Jan 2018): Christmas 2017 has come and gone, I was in Ireland for 2 weeks and had not a single night either clear enough or still enough - 3 major storms, including Dylan and Eleanor, passed through - to even get the telescope out, let alone a camera set-up requiring reasonably still conditions for 30-60 seconds. Which means that to be able to re-take THAT (Round 2) shot at the same time of night, I'll have to wait another year. To add insult, the Moon was waxing to full and higher in the sky every night which meant that shot was not going to be possible anyway. But Christmas 2018 looks to be perfect conditions from a Moon point of view.


Round 3b – Round 1 re-done using lessons learned

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My first Milky Way picture, Round 1, the “horrid mess”, also deserved a re-run, essentially a practise–run to learn lessons. Again I used my Canon EOS 6D, my new 24mm Samyang and the AstroTrac: 51 seconds, 24mm at f/1.4 and ISO 1600. I also post-processed it better. As a result there’s lots of colour and little noise. That orange glow bottom right is either local pollution from Baltimore Harbour a couple of kilometres away, or from the sweeping light from the Fastnet Lighthouse about 5 miles offshore, possibly both. They don't really affect the darkness of the area as a whole, but they're close enough or direct enough to be locally annoying.

In the left image, the bright star almost centre-frame is Altair, flanked by its two neighbours Tarazed (on the right) and Alshain. Looking down and slightly right, across the Milky Way cloud lane, notice a pair of little gems, lighter patches in the orange: open clusters NGC6633 and Graff’s Cluster, aka Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Open a larger version by clicking on the image and take a closer look.

On the right, more recently from August 2018, and in my opinion my best Milky Way shot yet, is a picture of Mars and the Milky Way from almost the same location but looking South. This is a "stack" of 3 images of around 45 seconds each. 24mm at ISO 1600 and f/1.4 . Such "stacking" reduces noise thereby increasing signal-to-noise ratio, allowing for a smoother background and more contrasty features. What remains now is to get some interest into my foregrounds. This picture includes more of the complex and bright centre of the Milky Way. Altair and its neighbours can still be seen, but they're almost at the top. In amongst the bright "busyness" lower down is the actual centre of our galaxy, where Sagittarius A*, our resident supermassive black hole, resides. If you look really closely, you can see it (no you can't, that was a joke).


Summary of Lessons Learned and applied so far: Round 1 to Round 3

I received some good “press” for my Round 2 pic and was pleased but I realised that, although not bad for a pure novice second attempt, it was still not very good. I determined to re-take both these pictures, and to get them right. Specifically, I needed to improve and expand my equipment (slightly), my shooting and exposure technique (quite a lot), my subject knowledge (somewhat) and my post-processing (a lot).

Equipment
My Canon EOS 6D is, apparently, a superb camera for this sort of work: full-frame sensor to make full use of wide-angle lenses; very low noise from “on-sensor noise suppression”, almost entirely eliminating the need to take and subtract bias or dark frames (don’t ask).

The lens I used for Rounds 1 and 2, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L, is less ideal. True, it's an “L” lens (Canon’s pro line). But it’s a zoom, and zooms seriously distort stars. Also, it’s only f/2.8, which at 24mm has barely enough aperture, about the area of a fingernail. A Prime (fixed focal length, or non-zoom) is required. Unfortunately - and surprisingly - Canon’s and Nikon’s fast primes are terrible for star distortion, and very expensive to boot.

I got a Samyang/Rokinon 24mm f/1.4. Renowned for low star distortion, it's only “quite” expensive. It’s manual-focus, but auto-focus doesn’t work on the night sky anyway. It will let in 4 times as much light as an f/2.8, so I could've achieved the same quality as the noisy Round 1 in only 7.5 seconds rather than 30, all but eliminating the trailing. To lose the star-trails altogether, I got an AstroTrac, which is a beautiful mechanism that sits between two heads on a tripod. It rotates the camera to exactly counteract the movement of the stars around the sky as the Earth itself rotates.

Exposure and Shooting Technique
This is a huge subject, far too big to go into in detail here even if I understood it properly, which I don't yet (there's no end) so I'll simply provide a link to the best-by-far and comprehensive description of the topic by Roger N Clark. Armed with this new knowledge for Rounds 3a and 3b, 45-50 seconds (tracked) at f/1.4 and ISO 1600 produced nice results. Compare that to Round 2 for example, for which 30s at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 collected only 1/6-1/7th the amount of light.

The pair of image-extracts below from Round 2 and Round 3, of the same object, Mount Gabriel, and taken from the same place, demonstrates the difference that 6 times the light makes:

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Notice the right-hand image now suffers from “streaking ground” rather than “streaking stars”, because of the sky-tracking. Depending on how important you think that is, you can either ignore it, or take a separate untracked frame and do some image-editing to overlay the untracked - and therefore sharp - bottom portion. You may think that’s “cheating”, but it's not: more about this a bit later.

Technical Aside: Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): Measured and Computed (using the image-snippets above)
To put some numbers and analysis to the two pictures above. Obviously, just by looking you can easily see that one is much higher quality than the other, but we can go beyond merely looking. We can do a bit of analysis. A good measure of quality is Signal-to-Noise Ratio, or SNR. We can both measure it from an image file, and we can predict it with a formula, using various properties of the equipment used and the exposure time.

Firstly, measurement. See the tables below. Comparing the same patch of sky near Mount Gabriel, and using the original RAW files from the camera, Photoshop computes (on a scale of 0 to 255) a mean luminosity signal of 31.9 for the “rough” patch and a standard deviation (SD) of 7.24, a signal-to-noise ratio, mean divided by SD, of 4.41 . Similarly the same patch in the “smoother” image has mean 104 and SD 8.99, giving a SNR of 11.57 and therefore a relative SNR between the two images of 2.63. These values are presented more clearly in the table below.

Tables showing measured average_signal / std_deviation => SNR of the same "smooth" patch from images above:

RAW filesAvgSigStDevSNR________________________jpegs as shownAvgSigStDevSNR
rough31.97.244.41rough52.412.34.26
smooth104.08.9911.57smooth100.45.0020.08
rel.SNR2.63rel.SNR4.71

Secondly, prediction. We can test whether a measured value is in line with what we expect given the properties of the equipment used and the exposure times for the images. The thing we need to consider is “étendue”. Known more prosaically as “optical throughput”, étendue is a geometric measure of, in this instance, an optical light-gathering system, and is roughly calculated as the entrance-area of the lens multiplied by the "solid angle” of the area of a single pixel over the focal-length distance of the lens. The étendue multiplied by total exposure time is proportional to the square of the SNR. For each shot we know the size of the pixels in the camera, we know the aperture and focal length of the lens, and we know the total exposure time.

So we can calculate the expected relative SNR of the two images (having just measured it):

For the rough raw image Sqrt[ étendue x exposure time] = Sqrt[0.1801x30] = 2.324 [units of metres.arc-sec.sec½ ]
For the smooth raw image Sqrt[ étendue x exposure time] = Sqrt[0.7203x45] = 5.693

The relative SNR between these two images is therefore expected to be 5.693/2.324 = 2.45x . We measured it at 2.63x , so this is good!

Note, however, that this analysis is on the RAW files that came out of the camera, not the jpegs that you see above. The jpegs, especially the rough one, are the results of extensive, inexperienced and hence fairly brutal post-processing to try to get the Milky Way visible. This made the .jpeg result noisier still, increasing the relative SNR of the images above to 4.7x .

Thus the difference between the graininess and the smoothness in the images displayed above is what about five times the relative Signal-to-Noise Ratio actually looks like.

We can conclude that using 45 seconds with a 24mm lens at f/1.4 yields 2.5x better SNR than 30 seconds with 27mm at f/2.8. Furthermore, the extra processing and boosting needed to render a poor image more palatable degrades this relative SNR even more.

Finally, it’s possible to use the analysis method described here to compute what exposure values and settings to use for any night-sky imaging and any equipment, wide-field or telephoto, and for single “subs” or for total imaging time. But that’s for another post, I’ve already gone too far off-piste.
End of Technical Aside: back to the point...

Focussing
Back on track (end of "advanced") : Focussing for night sky imaging deserves a paragraph of its own. Auto-focus at night doesn’t work, and it’s a bit hit-or-miss even in daylight. Focus needs to be absolutely spot on for stars. Set the camera to high sensitivity such as ISO 6400, find a suitably bright star and set “Live View” to 10x magnification. Focus by hand until sharp. Roger Clark advises going even further and using a magnifying glass as well. Don't forget to change the settings back to those you want to use, though! (been there, done that).

Furthermore: shoot RAW, use a remote shutter release, set mirror lock-up and 2 second shutter delay to minimize vibration; long-exposure noise reduction should be OFF (not necessary for modern sensors) and the top dial set to "B" for “Bulb” (otherwise you're limited to 30 seconds); I’ve saved all these settings in a “Custom Setting” on the camera’s top dial.

Post-Processing
Most people, using a modern digital camera, press the button, and Hey Presto! there’s a jpeg.

But the camera is doing a lot of work between recording a raw data file from the sensor and producing a viewable image file. The camera is making many decisions in the conversion process, arbitrarily deciding tone, contrast, saturation, black point, sharpness etc etc. Night-sky images are extremely dependent on these settings, and control needs to be taken over them from the very start. For example, "light pollution" will need to be "subtracted" from the image in almost all cases and at the outset of processing.

Shooting RAW makes the (albeit large) raw data file the camera’s primary output, preserving every scrap of information (every photon). Downloading the files into a “developer program” such as Adobe Raw Converter, which comes with Photoshop, or Adobe DNG Converter, which is free, allows me to manipulate the settings for conversion into an initial viewable image, and once downloaded (“developed”) further processing can be done in the application of choice, which in these cases was Photoshop. Learning these settings is a continuing matter of practise, research and trial-and-error.


Meanwhile, for now, I hope this has been interesting and perhaps of some help to any aspiring night-scene photographers.

Note about how astronomy pictures are produced

I alluded above to the fact that many people regard making images from anything other than single-shot frames as "cheating". However every single picture you see from NASA or the Hubble Space Telescope will be a stack of sometimes hundreds of "sub-images" overlaid on top of each other and signal-processed to extremes to extract the very few "actual signal" photons that arrive to the camera-sensor from the dimmest of subjects [present company excluded ;-) ], and to minimize the noise. If there's a foreground involved, such as a Milky-Way nightscape, it will have been taken "untracked" and pasted over the top in, say, Photoshop to allow both stars and ground to appear "unstreaked" in a 30-60++ second exposure. There's simply no other way to do it.












*Some will tell you that actually the Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33), slightly further away than Andromeda (if a mere 200,000 light years further can be called “slight”!!!!), holds that accolade. Look up Bortle Scale, which is a popular way of categorizing how dark a site is, and note that it uses the “naked-eye-osity” of Triangulum as a darkness-diagnostic. But this has been challenged lately, and I for one would need truly exceptional conditions to barely observe Triangulum with the naked eye. If, using the Bortle Scale, one inserts Andromeda (M31) instead of Triangulum (M33), the whole scale makes much more sense (to my mid-50s-year-old eyes at least). back up to footnote-mark


First Telescope, First Mount, First Light (Mak 180 + AZ-EQ6 GT)

For someone seeing a really dark sky for the first time, and granted some interest in the night sky, two reactions are likely: “I want to photograph that” and/or “I want a telescope”.

Being already a keen photographer, I scored on both counts. I've already described my baby-steps trying to take photographs; here I’ll take you through my first “viewing” rather than “snapping”, and my first ever (astronomical) telescope.

Also a birdwatcher, I must admit to “a binocular problem” - I just can't resist them. One pair I acquired a few years ago more or less by accident: I mistakenly typed into eBay “bionculars”, and was puzzled by how few hits there were. But hits there were, I bid on one, and eventually "won" it at half its true value: it had been listed as “bionculars”.

So for a time I satisfied myself with "bins" only. This, apparently and luckily, is the best way to start out with astronomy, and I agree. They're a great way to see all sorts of night-time objects, including (in rough order of beginner’s satisfactoriosity) the Moon, Jupiter and his moons, the Pleiades, Saturn (rings ["ears"] just about discernible), the Great Nebula in Orion, the Galaxies Andromeda and (if you're lucky and it's very dark) Triangulum, various Globular Clusters such as M13. Some of these, like the Pleiades, are not only possible to see well with binoculars, they are almost ideally viewed with them.

I still wanted a telescope though.

I now have my first one: a Skywatcher Skymax 180 Pro Maksutov-Cassegrain, focal length 2700mm, aperture 180mm, heretofore referred to as my “Mak 180” or just my “Mak”.

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About Telescopes

A telescope is not much use without a number of other necessary addenda: most importantly, a Mount.

A Mount in astro-parlance is what I would previously have called a “big tripod”. But, I concede: a Mount is the whole assembly required to support, point, and balance one or more telescopes, and to move them across the sky as the Earth rotates and the targets appear to move across the sky. The “tripod” part is but one "necessary but not sufficient" component. Most mounts need a power supply, indeed some require a 3,000m mountain, a large dome, a government licence and a staff of technicians scientists and security, but I’m not quite there yet. Never say never though.

The Mount I got is the Skywatcher AZ-EQ6 GT, able to support a 20-30kg load.

On its own, the telescope “optical tube assembly” (or "OTA", i.e. just the main tube containing the mirror and/or front lens) is not much use. To observe anything, an “eyepiece” is also necessary.

I got a trio of very high-quality eyepieces, all TeleVue: Panoptic 35mm, DeLite 18.2mm, and Delos 10mm; I also got a Revelation "diagonal" and a heavy-duty TS Optics two-speed focusser, capable of super-fine focussing. One problem with the Maksutov-Cassegrain design is that the focus knob moves the main mirror backwards or forwards directly, but because the knob is offset from the centre-axis, and because there will inevitably be a tiny amount of slack in the bearings, the mirror will get pushed or pulled away from perpendicular very slightly while focussing. It's only very slight, but under any decent magnification it's easily enough to notice and move the image in the eyepiece.

The eyepieces. As I alluded above, what most laypeople consider to be “the telescope” is only half the story. The OTA must be mated to an eyepiece to enable you to actually see anything. The main mirror or objective lens creates an image a certain distance, the focal length, away from it (though that distance will be “folded up” in certain "mirror" designs). Imagine placing a piece of card or thin frosted glass at the focal distance and you’d see the image as a bright disc. The purpose of the eyepiece is act as a sort of magnifying glass on that image. The optical quality of the eyepiece is therefore no less important than that of the objective mirror or lens, and often an astronomer’s eyepiece collection is worth more than the telescopes. Indeed some of the more elaborate and expensive eyepieces are less magnifying-glass and more microscope!

The total magnification of such a system is given by the focal length of the Objective (Fo) divided by the focal length of the Eyepiece (Fe). With different eyepieces, the same telescope will have different magnifications. My eyepieces, at 10mm, 18.2mm and 35mm, roughly double at each step and give me magnifications of 270x (EP=0.66mm), 148x (1.2mm) and 77x (2.3mm). The mm in brackets are the corresponding so-called “Exit Pupil” diameters, which depend on telescope aperture and magnification, and which also have a say in what combinations are possible. The exit pupil is effectively the beam of light coming out of the eyepiece into your eye, calculated as the telescope Aperture (A) divided by the magnification (M).

The exit pupil can be thought of as the "entrance pupil" - the tube of incoming light to the main lens or mirror - concentrated by the telescope system into an outgoing beam leaving the eyepiece. Ideally this beam must be small enough to fit through your eye's actual pupil. If it's bigger than your pupil, some of the beam will fall outside your eye and will amount to "wasted aperture" of the telescope system. The exit pupil being too small (around or less than 0.5mm diameter) is also a problem: you will often see "floaters" (from inside your eyeball) and placing your eye with high accuracy in front of the eyepiece becomes important and more difficult, which is actually quite tiring after a while, for moi at least.

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The relationships between Magnification M, Focal Length Fobj & Fep, Aperture A and Exit Pupil EP are:

M = Fobj/Fep .................... EP = A/M ............... EP_max~7mm


Consider a monster 20" (probably Dobsonian) telescope with a "wide-field" focal length of 1500mm and a 24mm eyepiece giving "wide field"-style magnification of 62.5x, and an expectation of a super-bright image, being a 20" telescope and all. Unfortunately the exit pupil will be 9.6mm - significantly wider than almost any human eye can reach (approx 7mm for youngsters, getting smaller as one ages) - so much of the 20" aperture will be wasted for "visual observing" use, and this enormous system would actually effectively be only a 11" scope at most (ie 7 x 62.5 = 437.5mm or 11.1").

My Research – What Scope, What Mount, What Accessories?

“They” say that when considering your first scope, you actually need to get the Mount first, then the telescope. I think that’s good advice. You may not yet know which scope is best for “my first scope” (the oldest and most important question in astronomy obviously), but only a little thought should be necessary to determine how big it needs to be. Ask yourself, “will I want to carry and assemble this on my own, by hand? Will I want to take it to other locations by car? Will it stay in one place for ever?” Include the size and weight of the Mount in these considerations.

Just those thoughts quickly brought me to a scope in the 5-10kg range and “up to 10-inch” size. The AZ-EQ6 GT is over-the-top for this, but I also wanted it simultaneously to be able to carry my 300mm f/2.8 lens and camera body, as the picture below shows.

So: What First Telescope?

A common answer on the forums is “it depends what you want to use it for”, which always makes me think “that’s true but not very helpful”.

My first answer would be that there are basically two options at this stage: high magnification or wide aperture. Obviously you’d like both, but because one object with twice the linear dimensions of a similar will have up to 8 times the weight, you will very quickly get huge, heavy and expensive.

High magnification is best for objects which are bright and have interesting features. The Moon, Jupiter and his planets, Saturn and his rings, double-star systems. Large aperture is better for objects which are dim and/or extended. Close galaxies (Andromeda, Triangulum), Globular Clusters such as M13, nebulae, Milky Way “dust lane” features. Unfortunately these dim objects, which truly are some of the most spectacular and interesting things to look at, only become really vivid at apertures (and prices) larger than any beginner could consider or afford. Initially, I would say that the “high mag” targets offer more instant “Wow”, especially if part of the point is to get your kids interested too.

Obviously, with the Mak 180's focal length of 2700mm, I went for the high-magnification option, although at 7" aperture it still qualifies as a "medium-sized" telecope from an aperture point of view.

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Setting Up the Mount

I had the Mount delivered to London but the telescope itself was too bulky to take in the car to SW Ireland, so I arranged delivery directly to a neighbour over there. Luckily my friend (in London) has a Mak 127, the 5-inch version of my 7-incher, so I was able to borrow it and practise using the Mount in London in the meantime. I’m glad I did, there was a lot to learn.

Not surprisingly for such a specialized nerdy and amateur pursuit, nothing is made too easy or standard. The Mount is supplied with a cigar-lighter socket for its power supply, implying that 12V is fine. Actually, 11-15V is specified, and I’d read that in practise, the Mount struggles on a car battery’s “only 12v” with a medium load on a cold night. So I got myself a hobbyist’s 13.8V mains-supplied box.

The Mount operates and can be set up in either of two modes: “Equatorial” or “Alt-Az”. It also has “GoTo” which works in either mode. Well, it does if you set it up correctly, which I didn’t at first.

“Alt-Az” is what non-nocturnal photographers call “pan-tilt” and is the intuitive one, where the scope can rotated left to right, and up and down. This is where I’d recommend most people start, it’s easy.

“Equatorial” is where the whole “right-to-left” rotational plane is tilted to match the plane of the Earth’s equator. This means that the axis of rotation must point directly at the Celestial Pole, approximately Polaris in the Northern Hemisphere. The mount is cleverly designed to achieve this, the axis and its bearings through the middle of the Mount surrounding a cylindrical tube-cavity, with a small telescope - the “Polar Scope” - screwed into this cavity, pointing directly along the axis. In effect it’s a small sniper-scope, including a reticle, to be aimed at the Pole. You adjust the Mount’s angle so that the centre of the sniper-view is pointed exactly at the Celestial Pole, and the reticle has markings to help you do this. If you're using it to track celestial objects for long-exposure photographic purposes, the exactness of the alignment is extremely important. Unfortunately there are several things that can make this alignment rather difficult.

In this vein I encountered the first problem. The polar scope had bad parallax: as I moved my eye from side to side, the centre of view in the polar scope moved around the background image! That’s bad! As it happens, I also own an AstroTrac which too has a polar scope. And guess what, THAT had bad parallax as well! I’ve not seen this mentioned in any of the multiple forums around, yet I’ve have had 2 out of 2 badly set-up ones. An actual sniper with a scope like that wouldn't hit much.

With parallax, it’s impossible to polar-align accurately, so I had to unscrew it from the Mount and adjust it. Unfortunately, it was cemented into the threads in the Mount, AND the two (theoretically adjustable) halves of the polar scope were also themselves thread-cemented together. In the end I needed 2 Stilson wrenches to get the job done, and a bunch of solvent to clean up the threads afterwards. Finally I was happy that the polar scope was set up properly (even if I did leave a couple of gouges where the wrenches had gripped the barrels!)

Practising

Still in London, I was now ready to practise with my mount and my borrowed Mak 127, and notwithstanding SW London’s terrible light pollution, a clear night in early August 2017 gave me my chance. I set it up as Alt-Az, connected the power supply, attached the diagonal and eyepieces (boxes everywhere!). The whole getting-out and setting-up took the best part of an hour; I was slow, deliberate and trying to be careful.

The “goto” part of the Mount is the "SynScan" Hand Controller, rather like an 80s-style mobile phone with too many buttons. It needs to be “initialized” every time you use it, asking where and when you are, and telling you to point the telescope to two or three bright stars so it can orientate itself. The instructions supplied are not clear, so expect a lot of trial and error and having to think quite hard about what’s going on. It took me an hour to get it working the first time (not including updating its firmware - NIGHTMARE! - but I digress). Once you’ve cracked it, the controller set-up need only take a few minutes (in Alt-Az mode).

Many people regard “goto” as cheating, especially for a first-timer. I too would encourage a beginner to avoid it, not because I think it’s cheating (I don’t), but because it’s rather difficult and pre-supposes more knowledge than a beginner is likely to have.

Anyway, that first night, Saturn was up. Exciting. I instructed the controller, and … whine, whirr … sure enough it was pointing right towards that bright dot roughly South West. I looked through the eyepiece, and “WOW”. There it was, rings clearly evident, bright, vivid, mesmerizing. I was impressed. At 1500mm focal length and 35mm (TeleVue Panoptic) eyepiece, magnification was 42x. I swapped in my DeLite 18.2mm eyepiece for 82x and it was even more beautiful. At that time I hadn't yet got my Delos 10mm.

I now needed another beer, so I went inside, taking my time, and left the apparatus to it. 15 minutes later I came back out, strolled up to the eyepiece, and Lo and Behold! Saturn was still right there! So the tracking was working in spite of my "newbie" setting-up. I spent the rest of the evening switching between various objects, including Epsilon Lyrae, the “Double Double” (I've named my double-scull Epsilon Lyrae), and Polaris plus its little companion.

Two things surprised me that night though. Despite that they related to my friend's 'scope not mine, they're worth a mention:

Whilst looking at Saturn I looked up to see how much time I had before it disappeared behind my big Magnolia tree, 10 metres away. Whoa! It had already disappeared behind the tree, yet it was perfectly clear through the telescope. Evidently there were enough gaps in the leaves apparent from across the 126 square centimetres of the telescope’s aperture to be able to resolve an image and for me to not notice!!

That surprise prompted the second. Fascinated by Saturn-behind-the-tree, I switched to look at the Moon, which roughly filled the whole eyepiece, staggeringly bright. In fact darkness-adaptation-ruining bright. Keeping my eye to the eyepiece, I put my whole hand in front of the telescope’s front element. Through the eyepiece, I couldn’t tell the difference. I was very impressed, and couldn’t wait to try out my “180” under dark skies in SW Ireland.

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First Light – Skywatcher SkyMax 180 Pro

I had had to wait several months between buying this telescope in early Summer 2017 and touching it that September. It was destined to live in Ireland, but was too big and fragile for the English shop to deliver there because Ireland is “overseas”. It couldn’t come to London and get takeb by us on our trip as it was too big to fit in the car alongside everything else (think trio of cats). Luckily Northern Ireland is apparently not “overseas”, so I used my extended sister-in-law network to get it down from NE Antrim to SW Cork (Ireland's version of John O'Groat's to Land's End).

My Mount, my 7-inch Mak and I finally became one in SW Cork in September 2017. First light came a few days later when a clear night beckoned. I hadn’t practised Equatorial mode yet, so Alt-Az it was. I’d got initialization down to only ten minutes. Unfortunately Saturn and Jupiter were below the horizon by the time it was dark.

My first target was the “Double-Double”, Epsilon Lyrae. This larger Mak having a focal length of 2700mm (as opposed to the Mak127’s 1500mm), I needed the 35mm eyepiece to get both “sub-binaries” in, but the view was lovely, both tight doubles easily separated. Next I was keen to compare Albireo in Cygnus (the “Jewel of the Sky”, and the head of Cygnus), with Almach in Andromeda, both double-stars of one blue and the other yellow, though of the two only Almach is a "true" binary, where both stars are gravitationally bound and orbiting one another. For me, Almach was the clear winner with its stunning and obvious blue-and-yellow. I hadn't realized thet mere stars could show such vivid colours.

Finally I looked for the Hercules Cluster, Messier 13, a globular cluster nearly overhead in, funnily enough, Hercules. Here I follow others in quoting Admiral William Henry Smyth from his journal in August 1836:

… but I agree with Dr. Nichol, that no plate can give a fitting representation of this magnificent cluster. It is indeed truely glorious, and enlarges on the eye by studying gazing. 'Perhaps,' adds the Doctor, 'no one ever saw it for the first time through a telescope, without uttering a shout of wonder.'

I hadn't read this at the time, but I did exactly what he said: I actually shouted “Wow!” as soon as I put my eye to the eyepiece. The Mak 180 is only a 7" instrument, and M13 really was a surprise to me, so I am really looking forward to seeing it through something like a 12" or larger!

By now clouds started moving in (evidenced by a gradual black "disappearance of stars"), dew was settling on the equipment, so I packed up for the night, well satisfied.




Second Telescope: Mak 127

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I love my Skymax 180, but it lives in Ireland and I don't, at least for the time being. Which makes nights like last night (18th Jan 2018) frustrating without a telescope. It was a stunning clear night with a barely-crescent Moon well below the horizon - I was able to see Alcor with the naked eye, a first for me from where I am in the UK.

I quickly realized I wanted needed a telescope in England too, though perhaps not quite as big as the "180", given the level of light-pollution where I am within 20 miles of Central London. Having used and enjoyed my rowing friend's Skywatcher Skymax Mak-Cass 127, and noting it's inexpensive, I opted for one for myself, on the Skywatcher SupaTrak mount. My existing Televue eyepieces travel with me between Ireland and London, but to use them on the new 'scope it was necessary to get a Skywatcher/SCT thread adapter, an extension tube and a 2" Diagonal (both Revelation as the photo shows).

Naturally the moment I had all this delivered and assembled, the clouds rolled in and as I write this sentence it's been raining ever since.

Second Telescope, First Light, 31st Jan 2018

It was a clear night, the Full- Blood- Super- Blue- Whatever- Moon was up, and it was TIME. I ran the 3-cat gauntlet to try to get the rig outside without letting the furries out. In the end it turned out to be a slightly frustrating evening, as I guess "the first time" often is.

I was by then familar with the SynScan mount controller, it's the same as for my AZ-EQ6 GT in Ireland, the only difference for this one being that I was powering the SupaTrak mount and the controller using the supplied 8xAA battery pack: 8 x 1.5V => 12V. The first frustration was that as soon as I'd got a certain way through the mount initialization procedure - aligning for the second star - the handset simply switched off! It did this twice, so I gave up with "GOTO" and instead used it in "manual" for the remainder of the session.

It was subsequently suggested to me that 8 x AAs might suffer a voltage drop on sudden full load, such as when full-power slewing for a 2nd Alignment Star, and apparently the SynScan handset is quite sensitive to voltage drops with a tendency to simply power off. So I replaced the 8-pack with a 10-pack. We'll see how that fares on 2nd Light.

Second Light - 9th/10th Feb 2018

This time I was much better prepared. I'd done some research, I had a Plan and a List.

I put the telescope out to cool 4 hours ahead of time. The List included Hind's Crimson Star, Herschel's Garnet Star, M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy - ever an optimist), Rigel (to try for its double - optimistic again), Winter Albireo and Almach (to compare these two blue/yellow doubles), and Polaris B. I really should have done more homework. Once again It turned into a slightly frustrating evening.

By the time I was able to get out, pretty much everything I'd listed was imminently due to disappear behind trees or not to appear for hours. In addition, a group of houses next door have installed some pathway lights which are dazzling, I'm going to have to erect some strategic fence-panels, I think. See an image I took below for an idea of the shadow I'm casting. With my "night eyes", that was blinding as soon as I looked in the wrong direction.

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Nonetheless, I did see Herschel's Garnet Star, a star coloured deep-orange, not far from Polaris, and a "taster" for the so-called orange and occasionally deep-red "Carbon Stars".

I definitely saw Polaris B, in fact I often return to it, it's a favourite of mine; "Winter Albireo" I observed for the first time, it was beautiful. But Almach, a real beauty and IMHO the best of the blue/yellow doubles, was behind an enormous Magnolia Grandeflora so I couldn't compare them as planned; Rigel was behind an oak by the time I got to it, I was able to see it but no chance of seeing its companion; Hind's Crimson was similarly hidden; M51 was obscured by my very tall house to the East and by the time it might've cleared the parapet, my fingers were going numb, it was approaching 0200 and I was getting dew problems on my eyepieces.

So that was 2nd Light, better than 1st but "could do better".

Still, I'm a fairly inexperienced observer, lessons learned and all that...



SlidingSeat.net / Magnus Burbanks / member of Molesey Boat Club, UK
  • ARTICLE SUMMARIES
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  • Second Telescope: Mak127, for the UK's polluted skies Jan 18
    Number 2: After practising with my friend's SkyMax 127, I got one for myself...