Tuesday, November 26, 2019

#260 - Monday, November 25, 2019 - Some New Targets

I got home and went straight outside -- it had already been dark for an hour and a half!  Oh the humanity!  Can't waste a single minute!  There is so much space to explore...

The routine is quite routine now: pull off the cover, flip the power switch on the Paramount and the focuser, and twist the knobs on the dew heater; plug in the power and USB cables to my tablet; take off the scope caps; double-tap the joystick on the hand controller to home the mount; and open up and connect TheSkyX and Sequence Generator Pro.  Flipping all the switches and twisting all the knobs makes me feel very much like a mad scientist. :D

I hit go in SGP, and then went inside to feed my hungry kitties, Nova and Orion.  (I'm on-theme here y'all!)  While I was doing that, the camera cooled, the mount plate solved & centered, the scope focused, and it was ready to roll! ...except I forgot to connect PHD (the autoguiding software) to the mount and camera D:  So I had to abort the sequence, connect my gear in PHD, hit Resume, and then of course autofocus ran again.  SGP was still tripped up over PHD and wasn't doing things in the right order, so I stopped the guiding in PHD and let SGP start it, since it prefers to do that step itself.  But after centering and focusing, it failed to resume guiding again.  So I tried it again, only this time I let the guiding finish initalizing while SGP was giving me the error message, and I hit "try now" in the recovery options window, aaaaaaaand it started focusing again, of course.  (There should be a check in the software for when it last focused!  Or pull the value from the focuser and check that it didn't change!)

Finally, about 10 minutes later, imaging actually started.  I started a few new targets this time, since I needed some second-half-of-the-night targets now that Orion et al. were transitting around 1:30 AM.  Now, since the latter half of the night is displaying springtime targets, you know what that means -- Galaxy Season approacheth!  And there are not a ton of targets large enough for my Takahashi in the springtime sky.  Eventually, I'm going to have to swap out the Tak for either my C8 or C11, but with the juicy nebula of the winter sky still dominating half the night, that time has not yet come.

So I went a-hunting for targets in SkySafari and on AstroBin.  I came up with a few: the Beehive Cluster, and the Whale Galaxy.  I'm not much for imaging open clusters, particularly in something that doesn't have diffraction spikes -- I don't find my images of them to be that compelling.  (Although I have seen great images from other people).  But I figured I'd give it another shot, especially with the stars in the Tak being so much sharper and cleaner than my previous refractors, my Schmidt-Cassegrains, or my camera lenses.

The Whale Galaxy is just large enough to look nice in the Tak, plus there are a few decently-sized galaxies around it to make a nice image.  If I'm lucky, I can maybe catch some of the gravitational disruption star clouds around them.

Checking the next morning, most of the images came out nicely, with a couple gone to some intervening tree branches.  The Whale Galaxy frames were particularly impressive -- the stars were extremely pin-point!  Either the focuser happened to hit perfect focus, or the seeing was especially good, or something.  Exciting!

Single 5-minute subframe of the Whale Galaxy, ZWO ASI294MC Pro, Takahashi FSQ-106N

Monday, November 25, 2019

#259 - Sunday, November 24, 2019 - Collimation Nation

With my new-to-me Vixen Newtonian loaded onto my Celestron AVX mount and a clear night ahead, it was time to collimate the Newtonian!  I did this in the afternoon since a buddy of mine from the Midwest sold me a laser collimator on the cheap at the 2017 Green Bank Star Quest.  I did some reading on the procedure and quickly found that there are two schools of thought on which is better to do first: the primary or the secondary.  I decided to align the secondary to the focuser first, and not having a collimation eyepiece, I decided to give the laser a go.

You can see in the above picture that the laser dot was not making it to the focuser tube -- it landed on the edge.  So I adjusted the secondary until it fell into the tube, and into the center of my laser.

Time for the primary.  When I looked down the tube, I couldn't figure out how I was supposed to be able to tell that the secondary was at the center of the primary, since you can't see the center looking at it directly, since the secondary blocks your vision!  And looking obliquely will obviously give you an oblique view.  I tried getting my cell phone camera in there, but that didn't quite work out either.  To make matters even more complicated, the primary does not have a mark in its center, so I had to guess anyway.  

I went to work adjusting the primary -- I wasn't too freaked out about it, since it was pretty far out to begin with.  I felt like I was getting pretty close after a while, but it was really weird -- it seemed like one of the three "corners" was all the way out, and the other two were pretty far in!  That couldn't be right.  I reset all of the adjustment screws so that the mirror was mostly flat with the bottom of the tube, and tried it again.  I got the same result, and when I thought I was getting close to collimated, I ran out of screw on one of the screws!  I also wondered whether the orientation of the laser collimator mattered.  It shouldn't, unless the collimator wasn't collimated...well, I rotated it, and the laser dot moved all over the place!  So that was another problem.  Something was definitely not right, and I was going to need some more experienced help.  I'll chat with some people at the next astronomy club meeting.

After nightfall, I went to work on the Paramount MyT with my Takahashi FSQ-106N.  I did some forum-reading earlier in the day on the runaway guiding issue I've been having on it, and decided to try another driver settings configuration -- I un-ticked PulseGuide and ticked DirectGuide.  I also ticked the "reverse dec output after meridian flip" option in Sequence Generator Pro.  SGP should already be commanding PHD to flip the calibration, but maybe it wasn't, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  

While I was testing doing a meridian flip on a star that was near the meridian, I came to realize that the scope was close enough to my lemon tree that tree branches end up blocking the meridian itself, at least to my guide scope.  So instead, I changed my sequence timing so that it didn't do any meridian flips at all -- it moved to the next target once the current one hit the meridian.  This way, I can avoid the problem all together :)  That is a valid risk-mitigation strategy, I swear!

Next, I wanted to see how good the tracking really was on the MyT, especially with the short, forgiving focal length of the Takahashi (530mm).  While imaging the Pacman Nebula in the northeast, I did manage to get 3 minutes with decent-looking stars, but couldn't quite make 5 (this is with ProTrack and PEC enabled).  So better than my AVX, but not mind-blowingly good either.

With my experiments finished for the evening, I turned guiding back on, and it seemed to be running smoothly.  I was getting 1.22 arcsec RMS error, which was mostly in RA (RA was 1.18, and dec was 0.46).  With that humming along...time for bed!

Single 5-minute color frame on my ZWO ASI294MC Pro, 5 minutes, with a satellite track

Sunday, November 24, 2019

#258 - Saturday, November 23, 2019 - Growing Pains

Looks like I got another clear night after all!  Time to get to work.  I've got lots of projects to do.

First, after setting up the second power box I got for the Paramount, I took my 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain off of my Celestron AVX mount and replaced it with the Vixen MyStar G-R 200SS f/4 Newtonian.  The Vixen was given to me by a fellow astronomy club member from back in the Midwest, Rikk, and I am very excited to use it!  It's an 8-inch Newtonian with a focal length of 800mm.  While it's a little on the heavy side for my AVX, weighing in at 16 lbs, the relatively short focal length should be pretty forgiving, and I'm hoping to be able to utilize it with my AVX.

When I got it attached to the AVX, I realized that one of the bolt heads on the bottom of the dovetail was pushing the scope up so that it wasn't parallel with the polar axis, which would cause problems.  I needed a longer Vixen-style dovetail, so I hopped onto ADM Accessories and got one there.  I decided to push on with initial testing, however.  I also rolled the Newt over in its rings so that the focuser was facing the ground -- this is a more ideal position for attaching a heavy camera, since the balance is better with that weight being closer to the mount.

Well ain't that a purdy if unwieldy setup...bless its heart

As I slewed it around to see how it moved with that scope, I noticed that the mount was kind of catching in one area and not slewing correctly in right ascension.  So I popped open the motor housing and tightened the gears to their shafts again.  Problem solved...for now.

Once that was all done, I moved back over to the Paramount and re-attached the focus control box for my Robofocus on my Takahashi refractor.  I powered it on, hit the buttons, and it worked!!  So exciting.

I slewed over to Deneb, since it was visible in the twilight, and used it to focus with my Bahtinov mask, just using the manual buttons on the controller box.  I'll get it trained after I take Miqaela's data, since it would soon be disappearing behind my lemon tree.  I got everything set up by 5 PM, and it was queued to start at 6:30 PM.

Such a gorgeous creature

The sequence started on time, but guiding in declination went off the rails yet again about 5 minutes in.  I stopped and re-started the sequence, but still got the same problem.  So to get Miqaela's data, I just switched over to TheSkyX's autoguiding instead of PHD's, and got to work Googling solutions.  TSX reported 1 arcsec RMS error, not bad!  RA was the less-good of the two, clocking in at 0.99 arcsec error, while dec reported 0.55 arcsec.  

In my online searching, I couldn't find a whole lot of people having any problems with it, so I couldn't find much help.  I went ahead and tried ticking both "enable pulse guide" and "enable direct guide" in the TSX ASCOM driver settings, so we'll see what happens once Miqaela's dataset is done.

Meanwhile, I turned my attention back over to my AVX mount.  I attached my dual-bracket to the top wooden dovetail so that I could have both my Orion mini-guider and red-dot finder attached at the same time.  I happened to already have a red-dot finder calibrated for the Newt that I had done last time I did some initial testing, which was really excellent.  They're pretty cheap, so I just have one for each scope setup now, labeled with label tape.  (I got a label printer a while back...it's awesome!).  I connected the camera to my other laptop and slewed to Deneb to focus.  I had tons of backfocus, woo hoo!  It looked like I wasn't going to have to worry about the typical problem with Newtonians of not being able to focus a camera.  This one was designed with astrophotography in mind I think, however, so the focus point with my camera and H-alpha filter attached as still only about halfway down the total focuser travel.  So I got it focused, but it was hard to see the Bahtinov mask spikes.  I took a short image with the mask off to confirm what Rikk had told me about it: it was, indeed, waaaaay out of collimation!  So I was going to need to re-collimate it before I could image with it.  That sounds like a project for the daytime.

I turned my attention back to the Paramount when Miqaela's star was done running.  The guiding had degraded a bit down to 1.4 arcsec RMS, but that's still decent.  I slewed to my next target and turned PHD back on to test whether it would work now with the changed settings, and it did appear to be working -- woo hoo, finally!  

Next, it was time to get the focuser straightened out.  I had to do some re-arranging of the USB cables because the Robofocus software, being quite old, only allows for COM1-8, and the port I had originally plugged it into was mapped as COM12.  I got it over onto a COM6 one, and it connected straight away!!  After having so many troubles with it for the last few months, this was a huge relief!  After confirming that it would, indeed, connect, I did the initialization steps outlined in the manual to calibrate how much travel my focuser had, and to fix the direction -- in vs out were swapped.  That procedure went smoothly.  I needed to have it close to focus in order for Sequence Generator Pro's autofocus routine to work, so I went to the Frame & Focus tab and suffered through the extremely slow download times to focus it using the controls in the Robofocus dialog box.  I adjusted some settings in SGP's control panel based on recommendations I found online.  At last, I ran the autofocus routine, and it worked!  It only took a few minutes too.

Finally, time to run the rest of my imaging sequence.  I started it....aaaaaaaaaand guiding quit working again in PHD, the dec axis ran away.  Sigh.  So I re-calibrated PHD again, and it was fine for a few minutes, and then went way off in dec again!!  Every time I re-started the sequence, the autofocus ran again, which was time-consuming, but I didn't want to disable that setting because I would need it for future nights (and knew I would forget to change it back!).  While I was trying to resolve the guiding issue, trying different things, it came time already to move to the next target, the Heart Nebula.  By this time, it was 10 PM, and I had hoped to watch some TV before bed, but nooope, none for me!  On the bright side, I watched the Heart Nebula do its meridian flip, and it worked fine, although I'll note that the guiding got kind of ragged after the flip.  Not long after that, the California Nebula started.  I watched the guide graph, and it went off crazy again, but actually managed to recover!  This is such a mystery.

Hopefully I can get all of this straightened out.  Growing pains, I guess!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

#257 - Friday, November 22, 2019 - T-Pointing

I needed to add more points to my T-Point model in TheSkyX, so that was my first goal of the evening.  I went ahead and defined a plot of slew limits using my cell phone's compass and level, but I couldn't get that mapping to show up in T-Point.  But then I figured out that there was another place that I had to do that.  I'll try and do a photo-based one this weekend.

Once I got a rough horizon mapping in for T-Point, I went inside to watch the action from my desktop -- it was about 50 degrees outside, which is really quite warm compared to nighttime winter temperatures in the other places I've lived, but since I haven't properly winter-acclimatized here in California, it felt cold!

During the automated T-Point, several of the points were coming back saying they didn't have enough stars.  I still had my ZWO ASI294MC Pro color camera attached to my refractor, as well as a light pollution filter, so I figured I just needed to bump up my exposure time for this less-sensitive configuration.  I increased it from 10 seconds to 20, but it still wasn't good enough.  So I changed the gain to 300, but then things got kind of hung up in the software, and the calibration run wasn't actually stopping when it said it was.  So I closed down TheSkyX and tried to restart it, but it said another instance was already running.  This meant I had to force-quit it in Task Manager, but then it still said the same thing!  So I rebooted my tablet.  This, of course, led to my wifi driver crapping out again (it's been finnicky in my Surface 3 tablet for a while), so I had to reboot it a second time.  Finally I made it back inside and restarted the calibration run.  It was working now, woot!

A piece of good news from today is that I finally got my Robofocus electronic focuser control box back from Technical Innovations!  They had to replace several parts, so they charged me the full limit of something like $75, but that's still much cheaper than getting a new controller.  They also updated some of the components, and swapped out the red LED for a green one.  I'll have to get that set up tomorrow, and then I can finally take the images for my minion Miqaela's star gift.  It looks like we're going to have some clouds all next week, but next weekend looks promising.

Now that I have two mounts set up, I needed to double up on some other supplies as well.  I got a second Telegizmos 365 cover, as well as a second power box in which to house the power strip and keep it nice and watertight.

In TheSkyX, I reset the horizon definition back to a flat 30 degrees all around, since I wanted the mount to continue to track, even if the target went behind a tree.  That feature I think is more for not letting your rig hit the pier or tripod or other obstacles.  I also wanted Sequence Generator Pro to be able to slew to it, especially since my estimates were on the rough side.  

The next morning, I looked out the window, and it failed to park itself again.  This time, it was facing east instead of west, and all the way back to the hardware limit!  No idea what that is about.  Sequence Generator Pro was showing an error that it failed to meridian flip because it was parked or not tracking.  When I canceled the meridian flip (which it was still trying to do), it immediately crashed.  Since it crashed, I couldn't view the log when I restarted it, darn.  So instead, I looked at what images I managed to get.  The California Nebula completed this time, and one NGC 2174 image took, at 12:35 AM.  But NGC 2174 doesn't transit until 2:11 AM, so there should be more images from up until the failed meridian flip!  I was very confused.

Currently, I have Sequence Generator Pro set to flip 20 minutes after the object its tracking transits.  The California Nebula transitted at 12:03 AM, and the last frame started at 12:28 AM, and then it didn't flip.  So presumably, it slewed to NGC 2174, facing east, so I have no idea what made it stop after that.  NGC 2174 is also pretty far south, which is my clearest horizon -- no trees or anything to run into.  So confused!

So my plan for the next night is to test out the meridian flipping to see exactly what's going on.  Hopefully I can figure it out!

Friday, November 22, 2019

#256 - Thursday, November 21, 2019 - Working out the kinks...as usual

The evening sky was hazy, so it wasn't a good night to image, but it was fine for doing some work -- namely, training PEC (periodic error correction).

Periodic error is a result of it being impossible to perfectly machine gears.  The result of this is imperfect tracking -- even if your mount were perfectly polar aligned, the stars would still streak a little, since the imperfection in the gears means that perfect tracking is impossible.  You can always just autoguide, which takes care of both polar alignment error and periodic error, but you can possibly get better results if you remove some of the work for your autoguider by training a correction algorithm.

Generally speaking, to train PEC, you follow a star to see how it moves naturally due to errors in the gearing over several revolutions of the worm gear, and then that recording gets "played back," in reverse, to "undo" those errors.  Different mounts and different software have various ways of doing this.

I followed this tutorial for performing PEC.

TheSkyX, as you might guess, has a tool for this.  To start with, you need to connect your main imaging camera to TSX, disable autoguiding, turn off T-Point modeling, turn off ProTrack, make sure the mount is set to track at sidereal rate, unplug guider cables and even the joystick, and orient the camera so that north is up.  Sometimes it can be hard to tell which way is which on the camera, but luckily for me, you can use the image link feature (plate solving) to determine what angle your camera is at, and whether the camera reads out mirror-imaged.

The first step is to log the autoguider data in TSX without actually applying the corrections.  This is done in the Telescope Setup window in the Autoguiding tab.  Then you choose a star on the west side of the meridian, near 0 degrees declination, and near the meridian.  You also set a look-box that contains the star you're using, and it has to be large enough so that the star doesn't drift out of it.  I tried 32x32 at first, but it drifted out before the run was over, so I had to increase it to 50x50.  It still left the box, but not until the very end.

While it was logging, I wasn't sure that PEC training was going to work because it drifted so far (the mount is polar aligned, I swear!).  It takes about 20 minutes for the MyT to go through four periods of its worm gear, so I let it run.

Once the logging is done, you go to the Bisque TCS window, and then to the Periodic Error Correction tab to load the log.  

Raw data is the light blue, messier line; the curve fit is the darker, bolder line

While my guide graph showed RMS errors as high as 7 or 9 arcsecs, I guess the software is able to subtract out other error sources (namely, polar alignment) and see just the PE.  

Finally, you tell the software to fit the curve, and it runs whatever calculations it does to figure out the PE.  It told me on the graph that the peak-to-peak PE is 6.5 arcsecs.  While this is not awesome, and means I'm definitely going to have to guide unless I just use a camera lens on it, it does indeed satisfy what the Software Bisque folks told me: they don't let a mount walk out their door unless the peak-to-peak PE is less than 7 arcsecs.  Woot!

Once that's done, then you send the data to the mount, and enable PEC.  Next, time to test!  I enabled guiding in PHD and turned ProTrack back on as well.

Now that that was taken care of, and the sky had cleared out, it was finally time to image!  I started the sequence in Sequence Generator Pro and went inside to watch the progress from my desktop.  Things went bad quickly though -- the plate solve image came down, and I saw that it was heavily out of focus!

I must have not put the camera all the way back in from when I rotated it for PEC training.  So I ran outside, pushed it all the way back in, and then went back inside.  Good to go!  The sequence finally started at about 10:50 PM.

But the goodness would not last.  Within a few minutes, PHD started doing the same thing as last night, where the dec axis ran away.  I double-checked that PulseGuide was the selected option, not DirectGuide, in the TSX ASCOM driver settings.  I tried it without ProTrack -- same thing.  Then I decided this time to try re-calibrating PHD, just in case.  Things seemed to be working, so I finally made it to bed at 11:25 PM.  My guiding was significantly improved from last night!

In the morning, I peaked outside to see whether it had parked this time, aaaaaaand it had not.  In fact, it was leaning way back, and stopped at its hard slew limit!  There were no error messages in Sequence Generator Pro about it.  It looks like from the sequence that it didn't meridian flip during the California Nebula.  I watched it flip just fine last night, so I'm not sure why it didn't this time.  SGP did crash this morning though, so maybe there was some other error.  We shall never know.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

#255 - Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - A Special Project

I got another clear night with the Paramount, so soon after acquiring it!  Truly an anomaly to not have clouds for two solid weeks after getting an awesome new piece of gear. :D

After Monday night's guiding calibration issues, I reached out to my astro-buddy Tolga for some advice.  He let me know that I needed to set the guide mode to DirectGuide, so I tried that, and the problem was solved!  Easy-peasy.  Autoguiding calibration in TheSkyX was super fast!

I had my ZWO ASI1600MM Pro attached for alignment and testing, but I had a new project I needed to put my ZWO ASI294MC Pro color camera on for -- imaging a special pair of stars for my astro-minion Miqaela back in the Midwest.  She's a college student that I've been mentoring and teaching astrophotography to since she was in high school, and she's majoring in astrophysics! :D

Miqaela and I at the 2019 Texas Star Party, with her rig

Back in November 2018, Miqaela imaged a star that her family got named in honor of her cousin Deven, who committed suicide in April 2018.  I helped her process the image, and then she got it printed and gave it to her aunt.  It was a very sweet and meaningful gift.  It's through the website Name A Star, and it's not official, but still personally meaningful.  

In August 2018, Miqaela's aunt's mother (different aunt) passed away, and her aunt was inspired by naming the star for Deven, so she did the same for her parents, Ron and Marge.  She got a double star named for them to enshrine their memory into the heavens.  Since Miqaela is at school and hasn't been able to image much, she asked if I might image the double star for her so that she could get it printed for her aunt.  

I went and looked at the coordinates she sent me, but they weren't quite in Aquarius like the certificate said they were, and I didn't see a double star there on the sky charts.  But the certificate also had the catalog number from the Washington Double Star Catalog -- WDS STF2887.  SkySafari doesn't have this catalog, and I had some trouble trying to use the catalog on the US Naval Observatory website, but unbelievably, TheSkyX has this catalog!  So I finally found it there, zoomed in, and it did look like a double star on the sky map, at least.  So I set the coordinates in Sequence Generator Pro.  However, talking to Tolga and working out a few other issues took up enough time that evening that the double star slipped behind my lemon tree before I could catch it.  

My next task for the night was to work out the kinks of using Sequence Generator Pro with TheSkyX.  SGP can't control the Paramount directly with an ASCOM driver like my Celestron mounts, but rather it communicates to TSX, which communicates to the mount.  The main problem I was having after getting it set up last night initially was that fact that SGP can't control the autoguiding in TSX like it does in PHD.  When SGP talks to PHD (so many TLAs -- three-letter acronyms!), it can tell it to automatically find a guide star, start guiding, stop guiding, and even command it to calibrate.  Not so with TSX.  While I could give it a guide star in TSX, when I changed targets, I would have to manually select another guide star, which obviously wasn't going to work for automation.  

So instead, I attempted to connect PHD to TSX for guiding, and it was able to connect and calibrate.  However, the guiding kept running away in declination.  Maybe it was interfering with ProTrack?  I tried disabling it, but it was still running away.  So I went into the TSX driver settings in SGP and disabled DirectGuide and enabled PulseGuide instead, which is the type of guiding that PHD does.  I turned ProTrack back on as well.  It did work this time, but the guiding error was pretty bad -- 2.5 arcsec RMS, and sometimes even higher than that.

I think I need to train PEC (periodic error correction) and add more points to the T-Point model for ProTrack -- that should hopefully help.  

I updated the target end times in SGP and started imaging.  The first frame came back with some nice round stars at 5 minutes.

Heart Nebula, single 5-minute subframe
ZWO ASI294MC Pro, Takahashi FSQ-106N, Paramount MyT

Woo hoo!

An interesting consequence of guiding is that ProTrack is showing 0 error, haha.  Probably don't need to run both, but some people online said it was fine.  I'll experiment.  

I went to bed, and checked on how things went in the morning -- the mount was pointing northish, but it wasn't in the park position I had defined.  SGP stopped during the Heart Nebula early in the night, unfortunately.  It looks like from the images that it slipped behind the tree, which isn't a big deal (I'll just delete those frames), but the sequence never advanced to the next target.  I'm not sure why.

I'll keep tweaking!

[ Update: November 24, 2019 ]

On Nov 23rd, I was finally able to image Miqaela's double star, and I processed it today.  

Date: 23 November 2019
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: WDS STF2887 (Ron & Marge)
Attempt: 1
Camera: ZWO ASI294MC Pro
Telescope: Takahashi FSQ-106N
Accessories: Astronomik CLS-CCD filter
Mount: Paramount MyT
Guide scope: Orion 50mm mini-guider
Guide camera: QHY5
Subframes: 16x180s (48m)
Gain/ISO: 120
Acquisition method: Sequence Generator Pro
Stacking program: PixInsight 1.8.7
Post-Processing program: PixInsight 1.8.7
Darks: 20
Biases: 0
Flats: 30
Temperature: -20C (chip)

I added the diffraction spikes artificially in Photoshop using the Carboni tools to make it a little more visually pretty.  It's roughly in the middle, although I had a hard time figuring out exactly which one it was.  A fun and memorable little project!  And a meaningful gift for Miqaela's family.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

#254 - Monday, November 18, 2019 - First Night with the Paramount MyT

After bringing home my brand-new mount only the day before, I got another chance with some stars out to give it a test run!  I got my TheSkyX license key and got it installed on my Microsoft Surface 3 tablet.  It runs a little slow on that platform, but it does run.  I opened up the program and got those lovely chimes.

After homing the mount (it goes to a specific pointing position in the southwest, and uses that as the home position for determining where you are pointing the rest of the night) and getting my camera connected to TheSkyX, I ran T-Point, which is its alignment routine.  You give it an area of sky, which you can map out by hand, by feeding it a picture of your horizon, or by just setting an overall horizon limit, such as 30 degrees.  Then it picks out whatever number of stars you tell it to, and uses your camera to align itself to numerous points precisely.  If you feed it a lot of points, it can map out different performance of the gears and other errors across the sky and 'undo' them sort of PEC-style, in a process called ProTrack.

It was hard to map out my horizon well -- I didn't have a panorama of my backyard, and I tried drawing out some of the limits by hand, but that was pretty difficult and not terribly accurate either.  But there is an alternate way to have it automatically select stars for you -- you can slew somewhere, and then say "add six points here," and it will make an L of points around where you're pointing.  So I just did that for a bunch of clear-sky positions.  I had it set up really close to my lemon tree, so I was pretty much limited to one side of the meridian, which it didn't like that much but did anyway.

Man, it was so cool to just watch this thing align itself autonomously!  Like, I live in the future.  Also, it was very quiet, especially compared to my Celestron AVX, which is very loud.  And it moved so smoothly!  What a breath of fresh air.  It was so beautiful just watching it.  It moved a lot faster than my AVX, but not quite as fast as my Celestron CGE Pro.  It was still bookin' though.  (And certainly not as fast as a Planewave direct-drive mount, but hey, no qualms there!)

Next was fine polar alignment.  (I'd roughly aligned it when I set it up using my phone's compass).  This process was very much like Celestron's All-Star Polar Alignment routine, but a little smarter; you pick a star in the south-ish, center it (I used a live camera view in SharpCap for this), then the mount slews to the offset it calculated based on the T-Point model as to where the star should be if you were polar aligned, and then you adjust the mount until the star was centered.  It could also tell you exactly how many ticks to move the azimuth and altitude adjustment knobs, which are marked.  The only issue I had was that the azimuth knobs were very tight and difficult to turn.  I wondered if there were some set bolts I needed to loosen, but I couldn't find any.  So I grabbed my 5/32 hex wrench and used it to help me turn the knobs, which have a hex bolt in the center of them.  The altitude adjustment, which was the major issue with my Celestron CGE Pro (and my CGE), was a breeze -- it was designed in a much smarter way that made it very easy to turn, even fully loaded and pointing south.  Finally, it updates the T-Point model for you instead of having to do a re-alignment like I do with my Celestron mounts.

With that complete, I decided to try out TheSkyX's autoguiding feature.  At first, I couldn't get TSX to talk to my QHY camera driver, but then after some Googling, I figured out that you can just use the generic ASCOM camera driver instead, and that worked.  Then I ran the calibration routine, but I kept getting an error message that it wasn't slewing enough in the X direction.  I looked at the result plot, and it was slewing just fine to north, south, and west, but not east.  I tried exposures as long as 60s, which was ridiculous, but I kept getting the same error.  So I tried calibrating at a different spot in the sky, but still got the same error.  I also power cycled the mount; still the same.  Finally, I gave up, and decided to see how well it could do without guiding.

I took some subframes on M45, the Pleaides Cluster, for 3 minutes, and there was some streaking, but not terrible.  I turned on ProTrack, which made it a little better, but still not better enough to not guide.  I dropped to 2 minutes, then 1 minute.

The clouds started to get too thick to continue at this point, so I had to close up for the night.  I decided to do PEC (periodic error correction) training tomorrow.  I also planned on doing some reading of the manual to make sure I didn't miss anything for guiding.

Can't wait for more!

Monday, November 18, 2019

2019 Advanced Imaging Conference

People have tried to get me to go to the Advanced Imaging Conference in the past, but being in San Jose, CA, it was too expensive to travel there from the midwest.  But now that I live in the Bay Area, it was a short drive down there!  So I finally attended this year, and I must say I had a blast.

I drove down on Thursday night (November 14th) after my quantum mechanics class.  It was pretty late in the evening, so there was virtually no traffic, woo hoo!  I stayed at the Hyatt across the street from the convention center, and due to some construction going on around them, the entrance was very hard to find!  I think I went around the block about three times before finally finding it.  But after that kerfuffle, check-in went smoothly, and I was soon passed out.


Friday morning, I walked over to the convention center, wearing my star-spangled button-up blouse, and a giant grin on my face.  I love conferences and conventions.  Such a feeling of excitement and anticipation.

I immediately ran into some of my buddies from The Astro Imaging Channel, who I was very excited to finally meet in person.  I met Alex McConahay at the 2018 Texas Star Party, but I had only known Eric Coles online thus far.  Later in the morning, I found Tolga as well.  I also found Cary Chleborad of Optical Structures (owns JMI, Astrodon, Lumicon, and Farpoint),  who gave a presentation on TAIC, and for whom I tested a Lumicon off-axis guider (which I still have, since I've been having so many mount issues).  I also was greeted by quite a few people who recognized me from TAIC.  That was so cool!  :D:D

Eric Coles, Tolga Gumusayak, Alex McConahay, and myself (on Saturday)

I attended Warren Keller's session on getting started in PixInsight, and after having used it for the last year, I knew a lot of the basic functions already, but picked up several handy shortcuts and useful features I hadn't noticed yet.  I took lots of notes on my tablet.  I also had him sign my copy of his book Inside PixInsight.  After his talk, I made my way to the vendor hall.  Within it lay a dizzying array of manufacturers and other astro-related companies, many of whom I've heard of, but some of whom I hadn't.  I wandered past the Celestron booth and greeted the world-renowned lunar photographer Robert Reeves, who I had met at the 2017 Texas Star Party when I won a few books of his in the door prize drawing.  I also got to chat with him a fair bit at the 2018 Texas Star Party when I took a Meade camera and filter drawer off his hands that he was getting rid of, and when I was complaining about all of the ailments of my Celestron mounts (he was one of the people manning the Celestron booth).  After chit-chatting with him, I made a beeline to the Astro-Physics booth, which was right next door: they had their brand-new Mach 2 mount on display!  

I thought about getting a picture with it, but decided that would be slightly on the ridiculous side.

*Sigh* gotta save up my money!  Although, every time I mentioned desiring the AP, people would then ask, "Have you thought about a Paramount?"  They also come highly recommended.

I ran into more acquaintances at lunch -- the couple of guys who were set up around me at the 2018 Texas Star Party!  I borrowed a couple pieces of gear from them as well there.  It was really neat seeing all of these people.

In the afternoon, I attended Adam Block's session on advanced processing, and he went over a couple of specific techniques for dealing with particular processing issues, which were really neat.  I took notes, but I'll also have access to the videos after the conference on the AIC website, which is good because there were too many little details to write everything down.  I was petering out in the afternoon, so I just set up my laptop in the main area and worked on catching up on blog posts.  It was a great day!


If I thought Friday was good, Saturday was even better.  The Hubble Award winner, R. Jay GaBany, gave a talk on contributions my amateurs to science with regard to astronomy and astrophysics.  I'm not just talking about variable stars and occultations: he used his 20-inch scope to image stellar streams in galaxies that were suspected to have had mergers in the past with dwarf galaxies.  Wowee!  What an accomplishment.  He was able to capture these faint structures that nobody else had.  

Later on, in the vendor hall, I caught wind that the folks at the Canon booth had brought along their new advanced-consumer-level printer and were doing free prints for people.  I managed to get four prints, and they look incredible!

My Rho Ophiuchi Complex from my trip to Chile this summer.

My time spent at the Canon booth sidetracked me and caused me to miss the only talk given by a woman, dang it!  After lunch, I went to a talk by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, who I have seen on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day many times.  He talked about bringing out fain structures using PixInsight, and one of the examples he used was of this incredible and enormous supernova remnant known colloquially as the Spaghetti Nebula, or more formally as Simeis 147.  I cant wait to try some of the new techniques!

I skulked around the vendor hall some more and got to chatting with a guy working the Woodland Hills booth about my mount troubles.  They were selling a wide array of accessories, and I was looking for some parts I might find useful.  He said they had a Paramount MyT that they didn't want to take home and would sell me at a discount (they're $6,000 new), and they'd give me $600 for my Celestron CGE mount, as well as shipping labels.  So I went and checked it out -- I could lift he whole thing, tripod and all (minus telescope and counterweights)!  An improvement over my CGE and CGE Pro for sure.  (Not to mention the obvious performance improvement).  I told him I'd think about it.  I immediately went and found the TAIC crew hanging out in the main foyer to seek their opinion.  After discussing the pros and cons (not that there were many cons), Tolga offered me a better deal to buy one from him as a dealer.  I also figured I can get more for the CGE mount by selling the parts -- people are selling functional motor drives for $500 on their own (and my CGE mount still has one functional one).  I decided to take the rest of the day to think about it.  I went and talked to the Software Bisque folks, and also talked to other non-SB people to get their opinions on it.  It would certainly meet my immediate needs -- good tracking and overall better performance, relatively portable, can take my 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and the inclusion of one year of TheSkyX, and then it's $100/year after that.  Plus, I could take it home that weekend.  Software Bisque also had one of their new Helium tripods there as well.

While there, I got a picture with the biggest mount at the show -- because why not!  It's a new product from SoftwareBisque just announced at AIC.

Imagine trying to fit that in your car!

Saturday night was the gala dinner, and I decided to dress up in my nerdiest best: a new Ms. Frizzle-esque planet dress.  I was extremely excited about this, and I got a lot of compliments on it!

After the whole afternoon to think and discuss about whether to buy the mount (and checking my bank account), I decided to do it!  I've been crippled by my malfunctioning Celestron mounts, and I was planning on making the mount purchase in 2020 anyway.  I was extremely excited, and also kind of freaked out by such a big purchase -- I think it's my biggest purchase to date!  (Well, with the exception of my car, I suppose).  But this should set me up for a good long while of imaging.  I'm also believed to be the first owner of the new Helium tripod!  

Wow, what a day!


There was one round of talks and workshops, and I went to the one my J-P Metsavinio about splitting up your images into DSO and stars and processing them separately.  I've got to try that sometime!  I know I've got some images that have some dim nebulosity in them, but I couldn't bring it out because then the stars would blow out, and other problems.

Finally, there was the door prize drawing.  There were some pretty incredible prizes up for grabs, including a $10,000 L350 Planewave mount!  My usual raffle drawing luck was not with me this year, however.  Oh well!

After checking out of the hotel, I parked in front of the convention center to load up my new Paramount MyT!  There were a few parts and pieces they were going to have to ship me since they didn't bring them with them to the conference, but nothing I critically needed to get the mount set up!  


I had an absolute blast.  Got to see & meet a ton of people, finally got a functioning telescope mount that should work well into the future, and had a fun weekend to forget about all of the stress of school.  The next AIC is in 2021 -- I'll see you there!

#253 - Sunday, November 17, 2019 - Setting Up the Mighty MyT

Yes, you read that date right -- the very night I got home from the Advanced Imaging Conference, I started getting my gear set up!  I must be the luckiest astronomer ever -- got an amazing piece of new gear, and the skies were clear!  For any non-astronomers reading this, only three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and new gear = cloudy skies.  Not today, Murphy!

And the angelic voices did sing unto the heavens...

Unfortunately, I didn't have my license key for TheSkyX yet, so there would be no imaging on that mount tonight.  I decided to put the Takahashi on it for commissioning because it has fewer complications than one of my Schmidt-Cassegrains.  Worry not, however, I will soon be plopping my C11 on there at long, long last, if all goes well!  Jeez, when was the last time I got an image with my C11...must have been the 2018 Texas Star Party, although I don't think I've gotten a complete (all color channels) image on it since Green Bank Star Quest 2017.  :O  (I went and double-checked my data log spreadsheet...it's true!)

It didn't take me long to get it set up.  It was much easier for me to lift than my CGE Pro, and the whole mount head was in one piece instead of three.  It's all tool-less, which is always appreciated, especially when one has to work in the dark sometimes!  One thing I really like about the new tripod (although I'm not sure if this is unique to this tripod or not) is that I can rotate the whole mount head on the tripod without having to pick it up.  The attachment from the mount to the tripod is one center bolt (sort of like my Celestron AVX), and you can loosen it to rotate the mount.  What this means is that if I have a bad guess on where north is, I don't have to pick up the whole mount to turn it!  There is also a built-in level, and it is actually possible to extend the tripod legs while it's loaded because of the way it's built; the pressure isn't directly on the bolt.  In addition, each foot is actually a long bolt that can be turned with a hex wrench for fine-tuning the leveling when it's already all set up.  I haven't tried this yet, but this will help a lot when I'm not on cement!  

Since I couldn't do much with the Paramount that night, but it was a clear night, I decided to try again with using my 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain on my Celestron AVX now that I've cleaned up the backlash in the gears, and put that Lumicon off-axis guider I still have from Optical Structures to work.  Yes...I have two mounts set up now! :D:D:D:D

The picture above is from before I balanced the AVX -- unbelievably, the C8 is actually ligther than the Takahashi, and I had to take off one of the counterweights (since I wasn't using my filter wheel or a guide scope).  Since I hadn't used the OAG in a while, it took me a bit to remember who the focal reducer, OAG, SCT-to-2-inch adapter, and camera all went together.  After I aligned the mount, I went to focus the guide camera on the star Hamal, but first I had to find the star.  An off-axis guider has a small prism in the light path but just off the edge of the main imaging sensor that deflects some of the light up to the guide camera, so I slewed the star off of each edge of the main camera image, hoping it would show up in the guide camera.  It didn't, but it might also have been way out of focus, so I threw on eyepiece on there instead to see what was up.  At first, it was so dark I thought I must have put the OAG on backwards!  But I eventually found it.

I put the guide camera back on, but I couldn't reach focus.  The Lumicon OAG I'm testing was pre-configured for the spacing of a ZWO camera with a filter wheel, so I was going to need an equivalent spacing.  I looked up pictures I had taken the last time I used it to see how I had it put together.  I had forgotten that I had to have both the filter wheel and a 21mm spacer!  I guess some extra backfocus was included in it for other accessories or thicker filter wheels or something.  I was using my ZWO ASI294MC Pro, a color camera, but I put the filter wheel on anyway (just with a blank slot in front) for the extra separation.  I was finally able to get the guide camera close to focus, although the stars had a funny shape.  I seemed to recall that the brighter stars can do that, especially if they're more toward the edge of the prism.  I also seemed to recall that PHD can handle oddly-shaped stars since it calculates a centroid.  So I slewed to the Double Cluster for testing, but couldn't see any stars in PHD to get closer to focus.  

I finally gave up and decided just to not guide and see what I could get.  I had the focal reducer on, so my focal length was about 1263mm, which is a little more forgiving of tracking errors.  I took some 60s exposures, and some of them were coming in with round stars, so I went ahead and rolled with that.  I set up a sequence to image galaxy M77, the Little Dumbbell Nebula or M76, and a nebula in Orion known as M78.  (Messier numbers in a row!)  

During alignment, I had noticed that the RA axis had some backlash, and dec sometimes hesitated before it started moving as well (although it didn't drift after I stopped like RA did), but I decided I didn't feel like dealing with it at that moment.  As a result, the stars were streaking during the exposures that Sequence Generator Pro takes for centering the target with plate solving (since it slews first, and there's no option for settling before centering -- only after a meridian flip), so I had to turn off centering for all my targets and hope for the best.  M76 was fairly close to center, but M77 was not even in the frame, I don't think.  M78 was pretty off-kilter.

M76, 60s

M77? 60s

M78, 60s

As it turns out, M77 was not even near where the scope was pointing for that imaging run -- I plate solved it on astrometry.net, and looked at its placement on WorldWide Telescope, and nooooope!

For size reference, my image (the bright rectangle) is about a degree in width.  The red arrow I drew points at M77.  Sheesh!

So not much will be coming out of here for the time being, until I get around to dealing with these issues...oh well.  It's an experimental testbed setup now -- all the good stuff will be coming from my new Paramount! :D 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

#252 - Monday, November 11, 2019 - The Transit of Mercury

Occurring only 13 or 14 times per century, Mercury transits are relatively rare, but definitely catchable a few times in ones' lifetime.  I missed the more-rare transit of Venus in 2012, since it was a few years before I got into observational astronomy.  But I had marked my calendar well in advance of the Mercury transit!

Mercury and Venus transits occur more rarely than once per year because of the inclination, or tilt, of the planetary orbits.  Not only does Mercury need to cross between us and the sun (which happens far more often, given Mercury's 88-day orbit and Earth's 365-day orbit in the same direction), but both our own planet and Mercury need to be at the same orbital "level" when they do meet.

Credit: European Southern Observatory

Because of the orientation of the orbital planes, Mercury transits can only happen in May or November!  Crazy stuff.  Also, the transits are not evenly-spaced -- the last one took place in 2016 (I missed it because I had just started a new job, and couldn't exactly just be gone half a day so soon!), but the next one won't be until 2032.

Here in California, we didn't get to see the whole transit, since it started before sunrise in Pacific time -- we only got about half of it.  But they are quite long, and even from here, we saw it for about 4 hours.  But that was plenty -- really, Mercury is just a tiny black speck as it crosses the Sun's surface, not even visible with just solar eclipse glasses; you needed a telescope to see it.

Last night, I staged all my gear in the living room: 
- Celestron NexStar SE mount and tripod
- Celestron 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain
- ZWO ASI1600 MM Pro monochrome camera
- Eyepiece case
- Tool & spare parts box (you never know when you -- or someone else -- will need something!)
- Folding table
- Folding chair
- Celestron Power Tank battery
- Microsoft Surface 3 tablet
- Solar eclipse glasses (for use with the (non-magnifying) finerscope)
- USB and power cables
- Brand-new folding wagon I just got to haul all of it!

I brought the NexStar mount because, being an alt-az mount, it does not require polar alignment, and is thus much easier to set up during daylight.  I just have to point it at the Sun, say "hey mount, it's the sun," and it tracks it pretty decently.  I used the C8 telescope because of its long focal length.  I went with the monochrome camera because with Mercury being so small, I was going to need all the real resolution I could get, which is higher with monochrome cameras (and this monochrome camera also happens to have smaller pixels, by 0.5 micron, than my color camera).  

I got up at 4:30 AM, got ready, and got the car loaded.  I took off about 5:45 AM, but I had to stop for gas on my way out, since I forgot to do it yesterday.  Then I had to stop at another gas station because I forgot to grab water and snacks.  *sigh* I finally made it to the Pleasant Oaks Park in Pleasant Hill by 6:45.  The Mount Diablo Astronomical Society invited the Eastbay Astronomical Society (of which I am now a member) to view the transit with them from there.  It wouldn't really happen from the west side of the hills closer to the bay where we live, since of course the sun rises in the east, and the hills would block it! Sunrise was 6:45, but it wouldn't be cresting the hills on the other side of the town until after 7.  Everyone else was already there and set up, so I moved as quickly as possible!  Luckily, thanks to the new folding wagon and the roller case my astro-buddy John gave me that neatly fits my mount and telescope, I was able to get all my gear across the street and onto the baseball field in one trip.  The sky was brightening, but the sun hadn't shown up yet.

I was set up and ready to align on the sun as soon as it crested the hill.  It was a little chilly, but just fine with my lightweight jacket, fleece hat, and coffee mug.  We saw the sun break over the hill, and I was already almost right on top of it, and wow did it look incredible in the camera!  I also happened to be very close to focus, so I quickly started taking a video as the sun rose.  I'm so glad I did -- I got my favorite shot of the whole day right then!

Power lines, hilltop, and radio/TV tower, with the speck of Mercury just below the power lines.  Colorized in Photoshop.

I got the brightness settings adjusted, and let the video roll for about 2,000 frames.  Mercury was bigger than I thought it would be!  It was so exciting to see it.  Then I took another 1,000 frame video, aaaaaand my hard drive was full!  (The tablet has a little 128 GB solid-state hard drive).  Not to worry, I'd brought a USB 3.0 external hard drive just for the occasion.  Unfortunately, my USB hub couldn't power my power-hungry spinning external drive, so I gave up on that and used the new USB 3.0 flash drive I had just gotten,  Unfortunately again, even though it was advertised as 3.0, I was not getting 3.0 speeds.  Usually, monolithic files like videos copy the fastest, but this was still chugging along at something like 25 MB/s.  It wound up taking an hour to copy just those two videos over.  Eventually, I just unplugged the camera and plugged in my external hard drive directly to get it all off so I could start recording again.

During all of this, my tablet crashed three times as well.  The first time was a heat shut-down (just like what happened during the 2017 solar eclipse), so I used my eyepiece case to create some shade.  The second two were from my ZWO camera draining the battery on my tablet.  I had it plugged into the 5V, 1.5A USB port on my Celestron Power Tank, but the tablet really needs the full 2.4A it can take to not die while running the camera.  Luckily, my new-ish external cell phone battery than I got for playing Ingress, Pokemon Go, and Harry Potter Wizards Unite had a 2.4A port, so I ran it off of there instead.  Then it finally stayed alive.

While I was waiting for files to copy, I hopped around to a couple other telescopes to take a peek through some eyepieces.

Some members of the public showed up as well, which turned this already-fun event into an even-more fun outreach event!  I also had quite a few club members come by my rig to check out how I was doing the imaging.  Most people there were doing visual observing.  

At last, in the last 45 minutes or so of the transit, the videos finally finished copying to my hard drive (as well as a few more I had taken before detaching the camera), and I could take a couple more videos at the very end.

The white tape I added to the front of my solar filter really helped a lot to keep the heat down.  The first time I tested it out in my yard with black tape, the air between the filter and the objective had become quite hot, but this time everything stayed cool!  So that worked out nicely.

I had a difficult time processing the videos, since RegiStax balked at the large file sizes and AutoStakkert was giving me tons of weird artifacts, but I got a few processed.  I didn't do the rest because the seeing wasn't great, and there were some thin hazy clouds, so to be honest, the images are quite boring.  Which is why the radio tower image is my favorite!  I did grab a video of it leaving the Sun, so I'll probably turn that into a sped-up video at some point because it will look cool.  

What a neat event with fun people!  I had a great time.  And I didn't even have to miss class since it was Veteran's Day.  I wonder what kind of gear I will have and where I will be for the next one in 2032!