Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Mars hand sketch at ULO

Boy oh boy, the fog and mist are really bad tonight. It’s still cold in London; about 1C tonight. I got off work a little early and headed up to the University of London observatory in Mill Hill. It was still clear when I got there so I got to use the 8" Fry Telescope. It's a 19th century refractor and amazing to use. It has a clock drive, lots of brass and great optics. I got to look at Mars using a 40" Plossl and a 2x Barlow. Seeing was really nasty due to the moisture in the air though in moments of steadiness I managed to glance at surface features on Mars and make my first ever hand sketch. It was a little rough and the hand writing was shaky because of the cold but I did the best I could. I do believe I sketched Sertis Major. I hope you all like this sketch. Click on it for a larger version.

After Mars I observed Gamma Andromedae. Gamma Andromedae, Almach, is one of the finest binary systems in the heavens, best seen in small telescopes or even binoculars: a triple system in which its brightest components (visual magnitudes 2.3 and 5.5) form a lovely colour contrast of yellow and blue.

The blue companion also has its own orbiting companion, which orbits the blue primary every 61.1 years. This companion is also blue (visual magnitude 6.3). The Fry was unable to resolve these two components but the brightest components were vivid and easily resolved. Seeing added significant scintillation of light but it was good enough given the conditions tonight.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

London Planetarium and CCD imaging

Today was definitely a high gear Astronomy day. Instead of my usual Saturday morning lay in bed I got up at 7am so I could get ready and head down to central London for a special SPA event at the London Planetarium. The show kicked off at 10am prompt and was given by Robin Scagell. It was an excellent show concentrating on Mars. Some super CCD images taken by various well known imagers in the UK were shown. Robin took us through how Mars moves across the sky over different periods of time throughout the year. A young lady called Emily Baldwin from UCL, who's also an SPA member, took over the talk for a short while. She showed us some excellent images from Spirit and Opportunity. At the end of the show we were invited to stay and watch the normal show which the public see. The show has improved significantly since I last came to the Planetarium about a year ago when they were just getting familiar with the new software and projector they had then just installed.

Immediately after the Planetarium show I rushed up to Northampton to attend a special BAA event about CCD astrophotography. Thanks for the lift Robin and thanks also to Bob for the lift back down to Harrow. Much appreciated guys! We managed to get to the event during their half interval just in time for lunch giving us some time to mingle and chat to other BAA members who were present. The afternoon kicked off with two great talks about astro-photography using various telescopes and photography techniques. In between talks I managed to get a good demonstration of how to use various bits of imaging software, namely Iris and Registax 3 thanks to David Arditti and Robin Scagell.

Using the new imaging knowledge acquired at today's BAA event I set up my telescope after I got back home. Once again it was a very cold night, about -4C. Some notable mist which later developed in to a full blown fog was present so before it hazed over too much I managed to set up the 'scope and get a pretty decent polar alignment. Using an idea given to me by Robin today, I first inserted my 2x Barlow in to the diagonal, then inserted the an extender tube in to the Barlow. On top of all this I inserted the Lunar Planetary Imager (LPI). This set up produced a scaled up image of Mars and for the first time I was able to pick out features on the surface of Mars from the live raw video feed. Dark areas were definitely noticeable. The misty conditions made it hard to focus very well so I proceeded with haste as best as I could. Using Iris I captured two AVI files; the first 120 seconds and the second 240 seconds in duration, set to capture two frames a second. Setting a higher frame rate caused Iris to drop many of the frames. I think this a LPI specific limitation as I recall seeing the Philips Toucam Pro at today's BAA event being able to capture at a steady 15 fps. Anyway, the captures were both completed and next I fired up Registax. Following the procedure Robin had shown me earlier today I managed to process and stack the AVI files. I was most impressed with the results I managed to get. I think the misty conditions caused a slight halo to appear around Mars which resulted in Registax producing an odd arc around Mars. These images are vastly superior to the ones I have been taking over the last few days. Given a clearer night with better seeing, I think I should be able to improve even more on the images you can see below. Huge thanks go out to Robin and David for helping me out today and being kind enough to demonstrate Iris and Registax to me.

Jupiter images

Before I got home from work today the frost was on the ground! It's -2C in Harrow tonight so I decided to stay indoors. Canadian's are probably reading this and yelling, "Sissy!". HAHA. Anyway, to keep my millions of blog readers *sarcasm* happy for today, here's a Jupiter image I took a few months ago. This represents my first ever effort at CCD imaging. Before this image I hadn't even touched an astronomical CCD camera. I was quite pleased with the results at the time. I wasn't expecting Jupiter to show so much detail after processing, especially considering the 105mm my 'scope offers. Enjoy.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Second attempt at imaging Mars

Tonight is very cold. The temperature dipped just bellow 0 degrees Celsius here in Harrow. Seeing wasn't too great tonight, and it shows in my image. I took several images tonight but this one was the only semi-decent one to come out.

The telescope was playing up tonight. It produced a lot of "creep after beep" which annoyed me to no end. I decided to reset Autostar and re-calibrate and re-train the drives. This took around 40 minutes to achieve. The creep refused to disappear even after three re-trains so I took the telescope out of Polar mode back in to Alt/Az and re-ran the training. This time it cleared the creep and the motors became much more responsive to commands from the hand controller. I decided to do a moderately accurate polar alignment using the Kachab star method. I stopped short of using the drift method to align the telescope mainly due to almost every part of me being half frozen. I hadn't anticipated it would take almost 50 minutes to get set up tonight. In the end I managed to get a really decent alignment and the image of Mars stayed pretty much within the central area of the LPI's field of view for a long time without drifting out.

I integrated for much longer tonight, but it didn't do much good to the image quality. I played around with the edge enhancement in Autostar Suite and adjusted the number of evaluation frames it took before applying processing effects. I also increased the quality threshold of each from 50% to 60%. I found it quite hard to achieve a sharp focus on Mars tonight and the seeing conditions didn't really help matters.

I think I need to get a 3x Barlow or even a 5 x Power Mate. I’ve seen people with smaller apertures than my 105mm telescope achieve much larger and sharper images when using higher powered Barlow lenses. Perhaps that will be my Christmas present to myself this year?

Before packing up I managed to observe the Orion Nebula for a few moments before the cold finally got the better of me, sending of retreating back in to the warmth of the house.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Imaging Mars for the first time

I received my five meter “active” USB2 cable today which enabled me to hook up my Meade Lunar Planetary Imager (LPI) to the telescope and then retreat back in to the warmth of the house and tinker with image capture using Meade’s Autostar Suite software. The cable performed very well with no loss of data.

Tonight’s target was Mars. This was my first attempt at imaging Mars so I was quite excited. I set up the ETX105 in polar mode, though the accuracy was some what rough and ready, resulting in the image drifting out of the field of the view within about three minutes. However, this was enough to allow me to integrate for a good duration of time and capture some images. All images were captured and stacked in Meade’s Autostar Suite and later processed in Photoshop. I have captured some more images as FITS files and I intend to process them in Registax 3, however I haven’t had any recent experience using the software so I’ll have to RTFM and work out how to use it :-)

Here are the results of my efforts from tonight. The third image was taken with a red filter attached to the LPI.

I guess these images are OK for a first attempt but I'm not overly thrilled with them. I may try and achieve a sharper focus next time and use Registax to bring out more detail from the image.

Monday, November 14, 2005

WOLAS Meeting

I attended a superb meeting of the West of London Astronomy Society (WOLAS) tonight. Proceedings kicked off at roughly 8pm at the St. John Ambulance Centre in North Harrow - a venue which the society has recently started using. It's a great location and the venue is very nice and spacious. Today we had Dr. John Murray, a research lecturer from the Open University, who is part of the Mars Express team, talking to us about his research on Mars. He is a Volcanologist and has been analysing the data returned from Mars Express and doing some very interesting work and analysis on surface structures, volcanism on Mars and the evidence of water on and below the Martian surface. He took us through many interesting slides showing comparative features on Mars and Earth and pointing out major differences or similarities between surface features on both planets. The evening finished off with the societies observing competition which had some really fine entries from JJ and others showing pictures of Mars taken on their telescopes.

I am looking forward to receiving my 5 meter USB2 cable through the post tomorrow. I should be able to use it to hook up to my telescope without having to sit outside in the cold. The length of the cable will allow me to perch myself on the dining room table and control the imaging device remotely from indoors. Ah, nice and warm.

I'm going to try and get a few nights in at the University of London observatory this week and next week. They have some really superb equipment there and whilst I'm still a student of Astronomy at UCL I hope to take good advantage of the facilities before my course ends next summer. They have a spread of telescopes to use from a 24" refractor to a 24" reflector, a Meade LX200, Celestron 14" reflector and a plethora of other great gadgets and 'scopes.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Observing session: 12th Nov. 2005

Winter months usually bring the most exquisite vistas for UK astronomers to gaze upon through their telescopes and binoculars. It also brings cold, dew and frozen conditions here in the UK. Last night was no exception.

I had set my Meade ETX105 out in the garden at about 4pm to give it a few hours of cool down time so that it would be at thermal equilibrium by the time I was ready to start observing.

7.30pm, I step outside. Oh yes, it’s cold! First task for the evening was to take out the clothes rack on which I normally dry my washed clothes. However tonight it was going to be used for something totally different. The rack serves as a perfect platform on which I can balance my torch. The torch is pointed directly at the infrared sensor under the flood light in my neighbour’s garden. This fools it in to thinking that it's day time and allows me to move freely around without lighting up the neighbourhood. Oddly enough, the warehouse that about 1Km behind my house has all it’s security flood lights turned off tonight. I’m not complaining!

I take the cover off my telescope and set it up for initial alignment, a task I've done so many times that it only takes a few short minutes to complete the procedure. All set up now and ready for a night of observing. I notice some wispy thin cloud but I can see right through it. Over to the west is a large clearing and no further cloud beyond it.

I've decided to dedicate the whole evening to Mars. Seeing conditions are steady and the view I'm seeing through the Meade 9.7mm eye piece augmented with a 2x Meade Barlow is steady and clear. There is no "jelly fishing" synonymous with turbulent atmospheric conditions and poor "seeing". The disk of Mars is crisp and steady and I can pick our very faint dark regions on the surface. To bring out the detail I slip out the eyepiece and attach a Meade red filter. This helps bring out the details in the dark regions of the Martian surface. The telescope is tracking very well tonight and there's hardly any wind which helps reduce vibrations when looking through the eye piece. I pull up the stool and allow my eyes to become dark adapted and keep peering through the eye piece at Mars.

After some time I pop indoors and find my binoculars. The stars fields in the constellation of Cassiopeia and Cygnus are incredibly rich. The 10 x 50 binoculars I use bring out the faint stars in these regions of space which are normally invisible to the naked eye from this part of the world, largely due to the intense light pollution and also the low magnitude of the stars themselves. An annoying problem with my binoculars is that I see double images through them. I think this was causes by the optics being knocked out of alignment when I dropped the telescopes a few months ago. I wonder if this can be repaired at low cost or if it’s better buying a brand new pair of binoculars?

It's now at least two hours in to the observing session and the whole telescope is dripping wet. Dew has settled on everything and even my clothes are damp. The temperature outside is close to zero degrees Celsius and the bite of the freezing cold air is very noticeable on my face. I decide not to take out my laptop computer for fear of it shorting out in the dew laden conditions outdoors. I had intended to do some CCD photography of Mars tonight but this will have to wait until another day. I've just ordered a 5 meter USB2 cable for the CCD imager. This will hopefully allow me to sit indoors and track objects in the warmth whilst the telescope does all the hard work outside in the cold. The cable should arrive on Monday. I'm in no doubt that the rest of the week will be cloud and rainy. Murphy's Law!