In the midst of COVID, time off has been pretty limited, mainly because all of the places one can go on vacation to are shut down in one way or another. All of the star parties I was planning on going to this summer were cancelled, with the main event I look forward to every year being the Texas Star Party. After a shelter-in-place spring break, with everything closed or cancelled, I haven't had any vacation time. So I decided to create some! I drove home to Spokane, WA to visit my family for a little over a week.
It's about a 15-hour drive if you don't include stops, so I took it over two days. I spent the first night in a town called Redmond, OR, which is just north of Bend. It's a nice little town with a lot of new construction. As soon as I pulled in, I began scouting out possible locations at which to shoot Comet NEOWISE! It didn't take me long to find a good spot: there was a walking trail along a canal that runs through town, and a couple hundred feet down the trail, I found a spot that peaked through the trees to the right altitude & azimuth that the comet would be at later that evening. I mentally marked the spot, then got some dinner and hung out in the hotel room until dark.
About a half hour after sunset, I took my DSLR, a couple lenses, and my tripod across the street and down the trail to the spot I'd found earlier. It was off the road, and I hoped the people in the houses along the trail wouldn't be too freaked out by a red-lamp-wearing shadowy stranger lurking on the trail, haha. I had to scoot down the trail a bit further to avoid disturbing a particularly loud dog.
I wasn't sure how soon after sunset it would be visible, so I got comfy sitting on a rock and waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, at about 9:45 PM (so about an hour after sunset), I thought I spotted the comet out of the corner of my eye. I put my 18-55mm lens on and took a shot -- and there it was!
Nikon D5300, 18-55mm lens @ 40mm, 3s, ISO-800, f/5
As the sky slowly darkened, I got the lens focused, and took a series of 6-second exposures at 55mm focal length that I would stack later on. I took 62 of them, and then swapped out to my 70-300mm lens, set it at 70mm, and took another series of 5-second exposures (adjusted to minimize star trailing). Next, I set it to 105mm and took a bunch of 5s exposures, although the stars trailed a tiny bit. And finally, I did a nice zoomed-in 200mm series at 1.3 seconds.
Due to the high rate of field rotation that far north, the shorter-focal-length images had steady stars near the comet nucleus, but pretty streaked stars farther away, showing obvious rotation. But the 200mm final image has nice, steady stars -- I didn't even have to process it twice to get steady-stars and steady-comet, since the comet was moving relatively slowly against the background of stars.
Date: 15 July 2020
Location: Redmond, OR
Object: Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE
Camera: Nikon D5300
Telescope: Nikon 70-300mm lens
Exposure: 49x1.3s, f/4.8, ISO-5000
I finally called it quits at about 10:30 PM, since I'd been out there for quite a while already, and needed some good sleep to finish the drive the next day!
Highway 97 through Oregon is a pretty lonely highway, and I've never seen a cop on it, so I usually speed through Oregon at a good clip. I managed to arrive home on Thursday afternoon just before my mom headed off to work. My sister and her husband are currently living at home as well, with one out of work due to COVID, and the other working only part-time. So I had somebody to hang out with while my parents were at work! They were busy doing other things though, so I just took a seat in the swinging chair on my parent's amazing front porch with a glass of lemonade and enjoyed the great weather until my dad got home early.
My dad took an extended weekend off of work and the five of us, plus my grandparents, took our two trailers up north to my dad's boss's property for a camping weekend. It was spitting distance from the Canadian border, and although I brought my passport in case we headed up that way, I'm pretty sure Americans aren't allowed into Canada right now! Crazy to think.
The family of my dad's boss have a whole house built up there in the woods along the Columbia River, as well as a giant shop. The shop has some sleeping and living quarters, but everyone wanted to feel like we were camping, so my parents slept in their trailer, grandparents slept in their trailer, and my sister & bro-in-law slept in their tent. My parents had told me not to bother bringing up my tent because of the sleeping area in the shop, but I didn't want to sleep there by myself! So I cleared out the back of my grandparent's SUV, laid down the seats, and slept in there on my air mattress (which I did bring just in case). It was a pretty tight squeeze, but I've been meaning to test out car-camping, so it was kind of fun!
We did some lounging around and some fishing in the evening, and while the fishing was going on, you can probably guess what I was doing -- setting up gear! Since I drove up instead of flying, I could bring up whatever gear I wanted, but I decided not to bring a whole telescope rig because that far north, astronomical darkness only lasts for about three hours. So instead, I brought my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, ZWO ASI294MC Pro, and 55-200mm camera lens that I had attached to my Celestron AVX mount in my backyard. Since it was quite dark up there -- Bortle 2-ish -- I wanted to swap out the Orion SkyGlow filter for just a UV/IR cut filter. The Orion SkyGlow filter is SCT-threaded, so I needed a different solution. Working an M48-threaded filter into a camera lens setup is tricky, so I wound up putting my 1.25" Astronomik Luminance filter inside a manual filter wheel I haven't used in a white, which was nearly the same thickness as the SkyGlow filter for back-focus purposes. While I did measure it with my calipers, I didn't get a chance to double-check that it would come to focus, so I brought along some extra spacers and adapters just in case. (Different filters have different indices of refraction, which move the focal point around by a couple of millimetres).
In addition to all this, I brought a couple extra things to do another experiment I've been wanting to do for quite some time, which was auto-guiding the Star Adventurer. It has two camera connection points on it, and I finally had acquired all the adapters I needed to put my Orion 50mm mini-guider attached to a QHY5 guide camera on it. The Star Adventurer uses ST-4 guiding, not USB, and only the RA axis is motorized, but my expectation was that it would at least help clean up the tracking enough to allow for longer exposures, especially if I was well-polar-aligned. ST-4 guiding works by plugging the guide camera into your computer via USB, running PHD2, choosing "On-camera" for the mount, and then plugging the camera via ST-4 cable (the wider telephone-looking one) into the mount. So PHD2 doesn't talk directly to the mount, but rather sends the command through the camera to go to the mount. It's an older, and largely obsolete, method of autoguiding (pulse guiding is much better), but it still works for mounts that don't support USB guiding! The major downside to ST-4 guiding is that because PHD isn't talking to the mount, it doesn't know what the telescope's declination is (which affects the calibration and the length of pulses it needs to send), so you have to tell it yourself, and re-calibrate every time you change targets (although I think Sequence Generator Pro can actually handle this). But since the Star Adventurer isn't a goto mount, just a "dumb tracker," I'm only doing one target at a time anyway, so it's a non-issue.
There was power up there, but I forgot to bring the AC-DC adapter for the cooler on my ZWO camera, so I just ran that off the battery.
The back deck was pretty shaky, but there wasn't a good spot on the pavement to see the North Star from, and the sprinklers were running on the grass (yes, they had a lawn, and yes, it had sprinklers...sheesh!) So I just told everyone to stay off the patio after dark.
Setup actually went pretty smoothly: I used the Polar Alignment app on Android (there's something like it on iPhone too I think) to plant the North Star at the right place on the "clock" in the polarscope for the time and date; did some star-hopping in the red-dot finder I had for the ZWO camera to land approximately where I wanted to image (the Elephant Trunk nebula up in Cygnus; it was dark enough that I could hop to the Garnet Star at the edge of the nebula with ease, and then guesstimate from there where to center the camera); set up PHD2 to guide in just RA and got it calibrated on the first try, and then just let it run once I saw the first 3-minute frame come down looking pretty good (after sitting very still). I couldn't check on progress remotely because there was no cell signal up there to create a wifi network to remote into my computer from, and I didn't want to rattle the deck by walking on it over to my computer, so I just let it be and crossed my fingers. Most of the frames turned out pretty well actually, and I imaged the same spot the next night as well.
One of the benefits of camping so far north (48N latitude) was that Comet NEOWISE was quite high in the sky, sitting at 22 degrees high at 9:45 PM, and still 12 degrees high when it was nice and dark at 11:45 PM. My grandparents were very excited to see it through a break in the trees; it was fairly obvious naked-eye still that night, and looked great in binoculars and in the camera. I think the rest of my family got a kick out of seeing it as well. And I got some nice shots!
Nikon D5300, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G lens, 20s, ISO-6400, f/2.2
We had the lights from the town of Trail across the border to the north, but overall it was quite dark!
My dad and brother-in-law managed to catch only two walleye, but we prepared them and cooked them up over the campfire for some delicious fried dessert bites.
My sister Mary's turn with the rod
Parents & grandparents at the fire pit
The weekend came to a close all too soon on Monday, and we packed up and headed back to Spokane. It was a really nice, relaxing weekend! And then I had the rest of the week to process my images, since I brought my laptop with me.
The Elephant Trunk Nebula image came out pretty decently given that I just used a color camera and no narrowband! I was a little bit off-target in my aiming, but actually quite close for doing it by hand!
Date: 18, 19 July 2020
Location: North of Northport, WA
Object: IC 1396 Elephant Trunk Nebula
Camera: ZWO ASI294MC Pro
Telescope: Nikon Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6 @ 200mm, f-something (toothpicks)
Accessories: Astronomik L Type 2c 1.25" filter
Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
Guide scope: Orion 50mm mini-guider (ST-4)
Guide camera: QHY5
Subframes: 18x180s (54m)
Acquisition method: Sequence Generator Pro
Stacking program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Post-Processing program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Now, the actual Elephant Trunk is hard to see -- if you start at the Garnet Star (the bright yellowish one on the left), and scoot directly to the right, passing over the U-shaped dark nebula, you can just see the formation of the tip of the Elephant Trunk before you hit the next streak of dark nebula to its right. (I recommend clicking the image to blow it up to see it). I got some red nebulosity, nice dark nebula, and pretty good-looking stars for this camera lens!
I also ran around with my DSLR and 35mm f/1.8 lens to get some nice Milky Way shots!
Nikon D5300, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G lens at f/2, 8s exposure, ISO-6400
That's Jupiter peaking its face up from behind the hills there!
I also attempted some panoramas, which I haven't processed yet.
At long last, the AstronoMolly-Mobile!
Back when I used to camp at my astronomy club's observatory grounds when I lived in the Midwest, I was usually one of the only tent campers -- most of the rest of the gang who came out had those fancy trailers. My grandparents lived in an RV for about 20 years after my grandpa's retirement, and my parents started trailer-camping a couple of years ago, but I am still perfectly happy tent camping. For regular camping trips, that is -- tent camping becomes more difficult when doing astronomy. This is largely because of getting adequate sleep; it's hard to sleep in when it gets very bright and very hot early in the morning. (Or very cold at night too, in some places!) And while I've been camping more times than I can count throughout my life, 7 nights tent-camping at someplace like the Okie-Tex Star Party sounds kind of not-fun. And now with bathrooms closed at campgrounds and other public places due to COVID, it's even harder. It is finally time to make a purchase I've been planning for a couple of years now: a trailer!
So I drive a 2017 Ford Escape, the 4-cylinder 2.0 L Ecoboost variety, which is in the compact SUV class. Most compact SUVs can only tow 1-2,000 lbs, but the Escape was built on a truck chassis, and paired with the Ecoboost turbo, it's rated to tow 3,500 lbs. Now, since it is only a 4-cylinder, I was pretty sure that 3,500 lbs was not going to do very well, so my plan was to stick somewhere sub-2200 lbs dry. There are lots of soft-sided campers that fit the bill, but I didn't want soft-sided (both for protection from wildlife and holding in heat/cool). I also wanted a toilet of some kind, and there were some hard-sided A-frame-type campers I was looking at as well that had cassette toilets and pop-up wetbath walls. There are also plenty of small trailers out there, but most are 2500+ lbs, with probably too much frontal area to tow comfortably in my Escape (the manual says to keep it below 30 square feet).
In my internet searches, particularly when I was looking for user experiences in towing with my car type, a brand I hadn't come across previously was mentioned quite a lot: Nucamp T@bs. They're little trailers, but not pop-up campers that I had been looking at before. After seeing what was available at the local RV dealerships, my parents and I went to RnR RV, which had a couple small trailers at their Liberty Lake location, and a couple more at their North Spokane location. We went to Liberty Lake, since it was a faster drive, and my grandparents had bought from them before.
On the showroom floor was a T@b 320 S, which was little but packed with features, and only weighed 1900 lbs! It was perfect. The dealer took me out to the lot to look at a used version and another light trailer, but when we came back in, that T@b had been sold out from under me!! The used one was only one model year old, 2019, and was nearly the same price as the new one (they hold their value pretty well, like Subarus). So the dealer looked up what was available at their other location, and lo and behold, there was another T@b 320 S. But, even better -- it was this incredible white and red color! Super cute :D And astronomy-red! It was pricier than the more boringly-colored one there because it had the Boondock package, but we convinced him to lower the price to nearly-match the one there. It was terrifying and exciting, but it ticked nearly all of the boxes of both what I needed and what I wanted, so I bought it! :D They pulled it down to the Liberty Lake location, and I came back later in the week to pick it up, do the walkthrough, and have my car modified (replaced the 4-pin electrical connector with a 7-pin and added the electronic braking system control unit). It is perfection :D
It took me several attempts to get it backed mostly-straight into my driveway, but I did it!
The table is fully-articulating -- it moves in a circle, can be pushed and pulled to one side or another, and raises and lowers. It also can be removed and re-attached outside on the side of the trailer.
The back of the couch-seat there folds down into a space where, if I set up slightly diagonally, I can set up a place to sleep without having to take the table out, and there's still room to sit on either side of the table!
That's a little TV there on the left, with air conditioning and heat/electricity/hot water controls above it.
The kitchenette includes a sink, two-burner gas stove, and 3-way fridge (AC, DC, and gas).
There are four windows that all open outward, and each has both a draw-down screen and draw-up privacy shade. The door also has a little porthole window that has its own privacy screen.
Yes, it has a toilet and a shower!! I can't quite stand in the shower, so it'll be a seated shower whenever I do take one in there.
I've already had a bunch of my neighbors come by to admire it! It's just so darn cute!
As far as other stats go, it has a single propane tank and battery on the front, a reversible, multi-speed (and honestly pretty quiet) fan on the roof, a tankless water heater, no outside storage (but I'll be strapping a bin to the front to hold my hoses and electrical cables), a 10-gallon freshwater tank, 10-gallon graywater tank, and 5-gallon blackwater tank, AC power connection (30 amp), solar power connection (to trickle-charge the battery), racks on the back for other outdoor gear, and LED lights on the front and back for illuminating your site. Also, the cabinets are actual wood, made by the Amish. (The trailer included a picture and signed card from the crew that made them!). The outside is fiberglass.
Driving it home from Washington back to California went pretty well, actually. I had little trouble getting it on my hitch and all hooked up by myself the morning I left (thanks largely to my backup camera!). I don't really feel the trailer on city streets, and didn't start to feel it on the highway until about 60 mph, when the drag became great enough to feel. (The super-off-road tires I'm sure don't help with that situation!). Downhills were no sweat with the electronic braking system, but uphills made the motor work a little harder. I eventually had to just go 50-55 on uphills to keep the motor below the 4-5,000 rpm range. Engine temperature never left normal, but my gas mileage sure did suffer! I averaged about 12.5 mpg coming over the Sierras and then through the vineyards and desert-y parts of CA on the way back to the bay on I-5. So it took a little longer to get back, but really not too bad. (Although I definitely won't be going 80 mph on that interstate through Texas to the Texas Star Party next year though!). It only fishtailed a bit once when the road was a little rough and a gust of wind caught me by surprise, but it was easy enough to regain control by just letting my foot off the gas and not moving the steering wheel. I did a little reading, and it sounds like I can also tap the braking system control to apply the trailer brakes a bit to bring it back under control.
All in all, it's the perfect trailer for singular me and the many astro-camping trips and star parties in my future!
The new AstronoMolly Mobile Observatory!
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