Just Wanted to Know

Andromeda GalaxyAstronomy podcasts and audio books are a standard part of my commute diet. I can get in about an hour of listening a day on my way to and from work. It’s a great way to stay up-to-date with the latest astrophysical news or to broaden my knowledge of astronomy in general. Check out my links page for some of my favorites. You can also browse iTunes for an extensive list of podcast offerings.

A question often comes to mind as I listen to these programs, such as “When the moon is visible in the daytime sky, why doesn’t the illuminated side appear to be facing the sun?” Usually, the question vanishes from my consciousness as my attention shifts to another topic, such as the lady cutting me off in traffic while texting on her mobile phone with one hand and brushing her hair with the other. The NASA report I was listening to about the recent asteroid that nearly hit the earth seems suddenly ironic, if not immediately foreboding.

Some of the podcasts have a feature of answering listeners’ questions. My favorite–hands down–is Dr. Tim O’Brien’s “Ask an Astronomer” segment on the Jodrell Bank Observatory podcast, the Jodcast. Tim can take a relatively simple question and produce a great mini-lecture on the topic and various tangents. So, I decided to give it a shot and submitted a question that has long dogged me. Here it is:

When viewing an image of a galaxy as seen at an angle, such as the Andromeda Galaxy or even more so with M98, to what extent is the image distorted by the fact that the galaxy is rotating and the light from the far side of the galaxy has traveled many thousands of light years further than the light from the near side? In essence, we should be seeing a lag in the rotation of the far side of the galaxy as compared to the near side. Right? Is this lag long enough to cause a significant distortion in the image?

I am deeply appreciative that Tim chose to answer my question. Here it is:

Note: Tim calculated the distortion as six arcseconds. To get a sense of the angular size of six arcseconds, consider that the angular diameter of the moon is approximately 1920 arcseconds. An arcsecond is about the size of a dime as seen from 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) away. For another interesting perspective on perspectives: if it were bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, the Andromeda Galaxy would appear six times larger than a full moon.

Thanks Tim.

Making Ends Meade

mark_and_lx90scopeOne of my favorite astronomy publications is not a magazine, it is a catalog that Orion Telescopes sends me every month or so. Orion sells a wide assortment of telescopes and accessories and continues to enlarge its offerings with higher-end products. Their prices are quite reasonable, partly due to foreign manufacturing. Historically, a number of companies, including Orion have sold refractors made by Synta Technology Corporation, a manufacturer based in Taiwan. My 80mm ED apochromatic refractor is a Synta product sold under the Skywatcher brand. It is identical to the model that Orion sells, so the accessories that Orion sells for it fit just fine. It is a sweet scope. While many owners of this model have complained of collimation problems, mine is spot on and required none of the DIY customizations that are well-documented on the internet. The optics are very good and I use it almost exclusively for astrophotography.

Synta, by the way, has just purchased Celestron—another supplier of nice and reasonably priced astronomy equipment.

Meade instruments is a major manufacturer of telescopes. My first real telescope (outside of the Jason spotting scope I received as Christmas present as a kid) was a Meade 4.5″ goto reflector. It is basically a good scope, though I’ve had problems with the cheaply constructed mount and the collimation due to the flimsy construction of the tube. It set me back almost $300 at this time, but gave me plenty of excitement when I could see the rings of Saturn, the Trapezium stars of the Orion Nebula, and the whole gamut of Messier objects. I was blown away at the scopes ability to slew (move) to various objects automatically, which greatly improved my knowledge of the night sky.

With my first case of “aperture fever” I scored an 8″ Orion dobsonian on eBay on the cheap. The day it arrived I sat it up for first light in the driveway and waited for Jupiter to appear in the evening sky. “Setting up” the scope is almost a misnomer, since the scope only comes in two pieces: the tube and the mount. You put the mount on the ground and sit the tube on it so that you can manually push it around up-and-down and sideways. The previous owner stored the scope in his garage pointing straight up—with no dust cover in place. Even though the primary mirror had a coat of dust as a result, first light revealed a spectacular view of Jupiter replete with sparkling clear cloud bands and Galilean moons.

My longing for ever-larger telescopes culminated when I invested in a 12″ Meade LX90GPS. It was my dream scope. With the built in GPS receiver, it was a breeze to set up. Just turn it on and it finds itself (something I’ve been trying to do since adolescence). Having been diagnosed with cancer—and with a heightened sense of mortality—I decided to “seize the day” and go for it. The LX90 was a large “light bucket” that brought to life numerous heavenly vistas. It was too heavy for me to unpack by myself, until months after my successful surgery. Some friends helped me set it up in the living room so I could at least play with the hand controller and test it out. To my profound disappointment, the scope slewed in its Dec axis for about two seconds and then stopped. I could hear the servo spinning, but nothing was moving. My own investigation revealed the that Dec gear box cover screws had not been installed. It had come apart, spilling gears inside the case. Back to the dealer it went and a new replacement arrived about a month later.

My purchase included a CCD camera and laptop; all in a naive attempt to jump head first into the realm of astrophotography. The bigger the scope, the better the images, I reasoned. I had my sights set on the Andromeda galaxy. To my amazement, however, I could not fit the entire galaxy in the field of view. That’s when I learned that many of the best photographic targets in the sky do not really require a great deal of magnification—just long exposures, precise tracking and good optics. As it turned out, the 12″ LX90 did not provide good enough tracking to enable long exposures. For my money, I could have gotten much more suitable equipment. I now use a modified DSLR for imaging (less expensive and much more capable than the Meade CCD camera I purchased), a German equatorial mount (Losmandy G11 in my case) and my trusty Synta/Skywatcher/Orion 80mm ED APO.

For its photographic limitations, the LX90 was fantastic at the eyepiece! Marlena and I joined the 2006 Grand Canyon Star Party and shipped the huge scope ahead of time for our trip. Throughout the star party I had my scope aimed at Saturn to the astonishment of park visitors who peered through the eyepiece. The scope didn’t make it back, however. UPS lost it. That’s another story.

With the money I finally received from UPS for my insurance claim—plus more withdrawals from the bank—I upgraded. Meade had just introduced their new models which incorporated Ritchey-Chretien optics into their Schmidt-Cassegrain line of scopes. So, I bought a 10″ LX200R. The LX200 is Meade’s classic scope. I had finally arrived at what I felt was some kind of truly respectable standing among amateurs. The scope lives up to its reputation and offers pin point stars, clear views and decent tracking. I purchased a polar mount wedge and got more serious into astrophotography.

In 2008, Meade settled a nuisance lawsuit to discontinue referring to their scopes as “Ritchey-Chretien” since they only incorporated part of the RC design. They now refer to them as ACF for Advanced Coma Free. To me, Meade seemed to be in a strengthening market position, in spite of the numerous complains that were ubiquitous about their lack of quality control and poor customer service (which I discovered after receiving my faulty scope). Despite all this, the company seemed to have tons of potential. I even bought stock. Big mistake.

Orion Telescopes and Meade Instruments: the Little Engine that Could and the great underachiever. The catalogs from Orion keep arriving, advertising more products all the time. They’ve also been into e-commerce for years. Good stuff, reasonably priced. Meade stock, on the other hand, has plummeted. I doubt that I’ll ever get much of my money back. They finally started selling their products through their website, which is a big departure from their failed business strategy. Meade scopes are now assembled in Mexico. Take your pick: China or Mexico. Either way, you’ll probably get some good equipment. Just do your homework first.

President Obama: how about a bail out for Meade Instruments?!

Attacked by a Vampire!

IYA LogoLast night as I sat in my backyard, capturing images of a bright Moon, I thought I caught a human shape in the corner of my eye behind the glare of my laptop’s monitor. Thinking it was one of my neighbors coming by the fence to ask about my astronomical target, I looked up. No one. Perhaps it was the cat. She almost always entertains me when I have my scope out at night by darting around the yard like a black flash.

Turning back to my work, oh my God, a face was staring at me! My heart pounded, my ears rang like sirens, and I froze stiff in spiraling fear as I realized quickly that this was no friend whose dark eyes peered at me. I thought—then quickly dismissed the idea—that someone was playing with me. This is how it feels to be murdered. The hope drains out of you as you come to grasp that the unthinkable is materializing right before your eyes.

During that brief instant, signals from an unknown part of my brain raced down my spine to the large muscles in my legs. I jumped up out of my chair, feeling like I had been catapulted several feet back. “What the ____ are you doing!?” My eyes were locked on the face, now morphing into the form of a darkly dressed man. He stepped back, as if startled. Not more than eight or ten feet apart, we locked our stares on each other. His gaze, however, had the quality of a predator. He did not answer; he growled. At least that’s the best description I can come up with for the guttural sound that emanated from him. I’ve heard the sound from hunting dogs, wolves and even a cougar. It was surreal, to say the least.

Then, he showed his teeth—large canines. Once again my mind jolted, trying to construct the incredulous picture before me. “OK, what is this?” Somebody’s really playing with me with this vampire act. But, by now there would be laughter as the practical joke had reached its zenith. No laughter. Only the growl and the predatory eyes. I was caught between the yard and the back door of my house. I instinctively moved behind the table which was sitting next to my scope. The bluish light from my laptop glowed, but its eerie light reveal nothing on the table that was of weapon status. That’s when the scene really went crazy.

“Go on, git, you demon!! Git on outta here in the name of Jesus!” I roared with a hoarse voice. Where that came from, I have no idea, almost laughing. It’s the kind of half-silly, half-frightened way I might shoo off a stray dog from the yard. But, at least I was on the offensive now, playing out some kind of unconscious script from a childhood-era horror film.

“Do you honestly believe that you can banish me away with that religious talk?” he laughed. This guy sounds like he’s for real! And, he is advancing in my direction like he means business. For some reason I was wishing I still had that Soul Winner’s New Testament that I got in Mrs. Turner’s Sunday School class. I’d throw it at him. I even said so. “If I had a copy of the Good Book, I’d whoop your butt with it, I snarled.” This is heating up.

“I’ve got your book right here,” he said, as he opened up his jacket and pulled out a little tattered book with gold lettering on the front . . . and a cross on the spine glittering in the moonlight, and it looked a lot like the Soul Winner’s New Testament that I remembered Mrs. Turner putting in my hand when I graduated from Junior I Sunday School and went into the Junior II class with the fifth graders. “Who are you? Screwtape?” I chuckled. It quickly became apparent that the joke was on me. He was walking toward me, closer and closer, holding that book like a dagger and saying “It’s not doing you much good now, is it?”

By now I had ascertained that there was absolutely nothing on the table or under my telescope mount that could serve as a weapon. I thought—and quickly abandoned the thought—of pitching a barlow lens at him. That’s how puny my arsenal was. I had to come up with a different kind of weapon.

“There is more power in that one little book than you know,” I warned, trying to sound stern. “I dare you to read one page!”

“A page for a page!” he stated, with an immediacy and clarity of voice that took me back. I tilted my head, puzzled. “You read a page of this,” pulling another old book from his jacket, “and I’ll read a page of that” nodding toward the tiny New Testament. “Read what?” I asked, wondering what the heck he was talking about. He opened up the old book, and sliced the first page at the binding with his fingernail, folded it into a paper airplane with that one hand and sailed it at me. I grabbed it just as it hit me dead in the chest and flipped on my red LED head lamp to examine it. It was the title page of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It was even autographed by the old man himself. One after another he sliced out a page and threw it at me, forming a missile with each page, all in one deft stroke.

“But, I believe this stuff, too!” I shouted in a tone that sounded far too defensive, now that I think about it. Did he think I’d be undone by the Theory of Evolution? Did I look like a gullible William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial (he is, by the way, an ancestor of mine, though I didn’t mention it)? Did he think I’d just stand there while he systematically destroyed a valuable historic document?

Without one iota of forethought, but with a strange mixture of abandonment and fury, I grabbed the 5 milliwatt, 532 nanometer green laser pointer from my shirt pocket and fired it at him. He screamed bloody murder and twisted around with his arm up to shield his face. This thing is really hurting him! I could even smell the odor of burnt flesh as I continued aiming for exposed skin. He shrieked and howled, running wildly . . . away. It was all over in an instant. There I was, still swinging my laser like a sword, shaking.

April 1, 2010

First Podcast

IYA LogoAfter listening to the International Year of Astronomy Podcasts for a year, I found myself saying to myself one more time: I should do one of these. OK, so I did. The organizers had decided to extend the project for another year and that would give me some time to put some ideas together. I was thinking about something like a talk on my reflections on my experience with astronomy and some of the deeper meanings that a contemplative astronomical experience might bring. Then I took a gander at the calendar for the upcoming year to see how many slots were open. To my surprise, there were not that many days that had not been reserved. So, I quickly shot off an email to Nancy Atkinson at 365daysofastronomy.org and gave her a hastily assembled proposal, hoping I wasn’t too late. She responded the next day with a welcoming tone, assuring me that there were still slots available and that they really needed some podcasts for dates early in the year that hadn’t been claimed, yet. Uh oh, now what do I do? They actually expect me to do this!

I spent the following weekend composing my script, and read it over a few times just to get the feel of it. It felt so cool, imagining my serene, deep voice gliding through the words, mixed with some ethereal music. This is gonna work.

The next weekend, I read through the online tutorial on the 365DOA website and did some research on a good computer microphone. I found just what I was looking for at the local Best Buy, installed Audacity on my laptop, and set out to make the recording. It was Sunday afternoon, and everyone in the house was napping. I set up an impromptu studio in a spare bedroom and started recording my script. I kept messing up and starting over. I got tongue-tied. Then I realized that I could just start over all I wanted and edit it later. I was nervous. My heart was beating hard and I couldn’t catch my breath. I stopped frequently and took a deep breath to try to settle my voice. My mouth was dry and I was making clicking and whistling sounds with my voice that I’d never heard before coming out of my own mouth. What happened to the serene, deep DJ voice I had the weekend before? And then there was the noise. I didn’t realize that my neighbors made so much noise! Every car driving by, every airplane flying over, even the heater fan made noise that spoiled the quiet background that I was seeking. About an hour later, I emerged from the “studio” with a hard drive full of recorded shreds of sentences.

It was a crash course in sound engineering. I tinkered with the Audacity software, finding all sorts of techniques for cleaning up the recording, editing out the junk and even removing the many whistles that popped up in my words. I found some nice royalty free music tracks and created short bits to play throughout my talk, accentuating the points I was trying to make. It was now well into the evening. I called my family together for an evaluation. They loved it. I mean, they really seemed to love it. I felt great. Whew!

Nancy had sent instructions and links for uploading the recording. I uploaded to the podcast server and emailed her that I my mission was completed. She responded a day or two later with a date. February 10. That was my day. I had about a month to wait, but that’s OK.

Every so often I checked the website calendar. My listing finally came up. There was the title and my name, along with all the others on their assigned days. Each time I checked the website, I got a little more restless. Am I going to regret doing this? What if I get some snide comments? What if the podcast is sponsored by some skeptic who starts the podcast off on a completely diametric track? Before going to bed on February 9th I checked the listing one last time. It wasn’t up yet.

The next morning, I was starting my routine and remembered the podcast. After brewing some coffee, I sat down at my PC and beheld the sight of my very first podcast. There was the title, the bio, the sponsor, the script, and of course, the button to click to listen. The sponsor was a physician who was celebrating his son’s birthday. That’s a nice sentiment. I sent out an email to my friends and co-workers with a link to the podcast.

By the time I got to the office, I had some email replies complimenting me on the podcast. Good friends say nice things. I listened to my own podcast at least a couple of times. It turned out well and it was a real hoot hearing Pamela Gay’s intro and George Hrab’s “This Stuff is Far” theme song with the lead in to–me.

What a day. It was an exciting and pleasant end to a novel adventure. I know that podcasts have a small audience. My website stats showed only a brief blip in hits. Shoot, even Steve Nerlich of cheapastro.com claims to only have around 50 followers. And, he is really smart, slick, funny and cool with that Aussie accent and all. So, I’ll be lucky if anyone else that I know has even heard of 365daysofastronomy.org, much less listened to my little contribution. Then Outlook beeped at me with a new email that evening. It was the sponsor. The doc lives right here in town! He, too, had been worried about whom he’d be paired up with. After reading his kind remarks, I headed off to bed with a pleasant sense of mystery about how serendipitous life really is. Just the point I was trying to make in my podcast.

The Hubble Palette

hubblebutterfly_1_smThe Hubble Space Telescope is now operational after it’s recent–and last–servicing mission. With its new and improved instruments, the HST is better than ever. On September 9, 2009, Nasa showed off the first batch of images taken with its new camera. The images are nothing less than spectacular! While the equipment may be new, the Hubble team continues the tradition of using their own unique palette to artifically render the various colors of the images which are taken with narrowband filters. Narrowband filters enable astrophotographers to filter out all but select wavelengths of light which are associated with various elements. Doubly ionized oxygen, for example, is at 502nm on the light spectrum and has a bluish color. By using an OIII or 502nm filter, the unique color of this super-heated gas can be imaged.

I thought it would be interesting to see what the image of the Butterfly Nebula would look like if I assigned natural colors to the image. So, I downloaded the image files from the Space Telescope Science Institute and went to work. Click here to see the results.


mark_and_scopeIt takes perseverence and passion. Why else, on God’s green earth, would folks like me endure sleep deprivation, hypothermia, insects, and countless technical glitches to sit beside a lumbering telescope for hours and hours? Catching astronomical images requires endless attempts which go on for hours, often after traveling for miles to find a dark site. At times, all the effort pays off. My best evening ever was at a ranch just down the mountain from the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. Clear, dark, dry, calm, and comfortably cool skies prevailed for the evening. I had perfect accommodations with a small lawn on which to set up, just yards away from the porch of our cabin. I spent the evening capturing exposures of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), which is one of my all-time favorite astronomical targets. Glorious.

Alas, every astrophotographer has a nightmare to remember. So painful are they that a man rarely volunteers these painful stories without some coaxing. Let’s just say that my version of Dante’s lowest hell was on the same mountain in Fort Davis, only at a slightly lower altitude. Nature laid a snare for me, replete with vampire mosquitoes, dense humidity and early dew, technical glitches that could only be explained in terms of the demonic, and light pollution from a fund-raiser bar-b-que for the local Democratic party. Our hosts could not have anticipated a week of heavy rain before our arrival. It was the west Texas desert, after all. They had neglected to inform us, however, of one minor detail: that a hundred sets of headlights would wreak havoc with the pristine night as a mediocre country and western band droned on and on whilst local politicos rubbed elbows and clinked longnecks. See, I’ve already revealed too much of this shame-laden tale of woe. I don’t cry often. Let’s just leave it at that.

This little website of mine is my portal–or peep hole–into the world of this newbie astrophotographer and the myriads of complexities involved. It is all about the passion, and the perseverence required to reap a harvest of photons from the heavens.

Ying Yang Bling Bling Ba da Boom

ying-yangAstronomers are an interesting bunch. I’ve never encountered a community so full of polarities. Being the nice guy that I am, let me give you a few pointers, lest you run afoul in your initial forays into this cryptic world.

1. Embrace the new like your long lost dog; hold on to the old like a bad habit. Astronomy has been termed the “Queen of the sciences.” If you want to be on the very forefront of cutting-edge technology and supercharged theoretical thinking, then delve into the world of astrophysics. There are few sciences that offer the awe that accompanies the eyepiece of a decent-sized telescope, or even just a dark, clear night out in the boondocks, when a well-versed astronomer is guiding you.

But, astronomy is chock full of anachronisms:

A 6th magnitude star is VERY MUCH dimmer than a 1st magnitude star. A Quarter Moon looks half illuminated while a Full Moon is, well, fully illuminated. The dark areas of the moon are often referred to as seas, even though they have always been bone dry. The A Ring of Saturn is further away from the planet than the D Ring; though the E Ring is further away than the A Ring. A B class star is much hotter than an M class star; but an O class star is hotter than a B class star. The earth rotates on its axis, but revolves around the sun. Polaris is currently the North Star, but there is no South Star. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are not clouds, they are galaxies. You get the idea.

2. Introversion and extraversion. “These guys are really stuck up,” my wife commented at one of her first star parties out of the city. “Just wait until dark,” I reassured. It was, at first, like driving down a dead end road in the deepest, darkest reaches of xenophobic Appalachia. They stared as we drove up, offering only a few wary greetings. No banjo, thankfully. A few awkward hours later, as the first stars peered through the dusk, the transformation commenced. Let the party begin! Ice chests of beer were generosity laid open, someone offered us a hot dog, a satellite radio came on, the whirring sound of servo motors filled the air as scopes slewed to favorite targets, and a cacophony of chatter ensued.

Ironically, astronomers can be very enthusiastic about public outreach. Most of us are passionate about astronomy and love to tell you all about it. I’d admit, that while I may give my neighbors a courteous nod and Hello while working in my yard, if they walk by when I have my scope out I’m sure to bend their ears about the object I have in the viewfinder. If I can get you to see Saturn through my 10″ reflector, I know you will be hooked, and I will have just made another friend.

3. Fanatical dogma; rabid skepticism. I don’t know about you, but my Mother sought to instill in me a basic competency in the social graces, which could be summed up as “Don’t talk with food in your mouth, keep your elbows off the table, open the door for the ladies and never talk about religion or politics.” Given the level of burping and farting that characterizes most astronomical camping trips, I’d say that most of these rules of thumb can be interpreted very loosely. However, HOW EVER, I strongly recommend that you not broach the subjects of religion or politics in the presence of astronomers. It’s not that these topics won’t be broached; just don’t venture down that path yourself unless you learned your etiquette at San Quentin State. It is territory where angels fear to tread.

On the other hand that you have left, if you happen to like to stir up controversy and mischief, then there would be no better way to do so than to sit back, after dark, after the blood alcohol levels have risen a bit, stare up at the heavens and casually say something like, “Look at that glorious sky! How can anyone in their right mind not believe there is a God. I attended this great lecture the other day on Intelligent Design&#0133”

May the Force be with you, my friend.

OK. Not all astronomers are acrid atheists. In fact, the folks I hang out with are mostly church going types, even the so-called “professional” astronomers. Really.

But, I’ve never quite understood the bitterness that so many astrophysicists have toward religion. Granted, Galileo was threatened with torture 400 years ago by the Catholic Church for teaching that the earth was not the center of the universe. So, this was a war that the Church started. That might explain the red-faced, bug-eyed, fang-showing fury at all things religious on the part of many astronomers. But, hey, Copernicus—a Catholic Priest—proved that indeed the earth revolves around the sun. And did you know that the originator of the concept of the Big Bang was Farther Lemaitre, a Catholic Priest? I guess the day is coming when parents will hope that their sons grow up to marry a good skeptic girl.

Mom was right, after all. Keep polite conversation… well, polite. And just to be safe, keep your elbows off the table.

Estes Park Memorial Observatory

Estes Park Memorial ObservatoryWhile in Estes Park, Colorado, in July (2009), I had the pleasure of visiting the Estes Park Memorial Observatory. The observatory was founded by Mike and Carole Connolly in memory of their children Thomas and Christian Connolly who died July 2, 2005 in a traffic accident. The surviving daughter of the family, Michele Johnson, is a co-founder with her parents.

In anticipation of our trip, I contacted Mike to reserve some time at the observatory and asked if I might bring some camera equipment to use with the observatory’s 12″ Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. He was enthusiastic about the idea.

Upon arriving in Estes Park, I “scoped out” the location, which is on the campus of the Park R-3 School District in Estes Park, near the lake. The weather forecast was not promising, but Mike assured me that it had been clearing off after sunset each night.

scope_smUnfortunately, the sky was overcast, with thunderstorms in the area. What clearing there might have been in the clouds would have been wasted on the lightening. The photo tells the story, with clouds visible through the dome’s aperture. This was our view for all three of the nights I was in town. Also visible in the image is the 16′ interior of the dome and stairway.

Mike, a retired aerospace engineer, was accompanied by Dr. Stephen Little, a retired astronomy prof. Both are avid volunteers for the observatory and promote its mission of providing astronomy education to the children of Estes Park. The facility is available to the public free of charge. Downstairs is a large well-equipped classroom and various offices and rooms for storing the growing collection of scopes and binoculars. The observatory now owns some fine pieces of equipment, due in large part to the donation of the extensive collection of a young man, by his parents, following his death. It truly is a memorial observatory.

After chatting awhile about the observatory and its founders, my father and I called it a night and I drove back the hotel empty handed. Mike had offered to meet again the following night. That next evening we were joined by Dr. Little and his wife, Dr. Irene Little-Marenin, also a retired astronomy professor. Another young couple was in attendance due to their interest in the observatory. We had a little better luck with some infrequent clear spots between the clouds, but the lightening threatened to ruin any long exposures. I connected my DSLR to the business end of the scope and set up my laptop. I was able to capture eleven 30 second exposures of M13, the globular cluster in Hercules, which provided a small demonstration to my curious audience.

Mike once again graciously offered the dome and met us for the third night, which looked very promising. At sunset the clouds vanished, leaving a glorious sky of bright stars and a very visible Milky Way. I had my target in sight: the North America Nebula high in the northern stream of the Milky Way. Mike was weary from a long day, but opened up the facility for us and explained how to lock up, and left for home. With the place at my disposal, I cranked up the camera and started a series of 10 five minute exposures. For this session, I had mounted my camera on the scope, using a 135mm lens to capture a wide field of view. I was delighted! The scope tracked well and my exposures were revealing the nebula in all its splendor. But, my excitement was short-lived. The fourth exposure was washed out, and looking up through the aperture of the doom, I saw clouds reappearing and moving across my target.

Even with the frustration of cloudy weather, I count my visit a grand success. It was worth it just to meet these folks and visit the observatory. I did come away with a couple of images worth keeping and new friends who now have some inspiration to do astrophotography on their own and teach it to the children who frequent the place. I’m pretty sure that it was not my expertise that might have impressed them, but the fact that someone with my limited skills and basic equipment can do astrophotography. I hope that on my next visit I see some great photos taken by the kids of Estes Park at that observatory. What a treasure!

For more info, visit angelsabove.org.
Click here to see larger images.