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Many firsts at GMARS

Observing report, February 23, 2020

This would be my first night observing from a powered telescope pad at GMARS, Riverside Astronomical Society’s Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station, in Landers, CA. It was a beautifully clear but cold February Sunday evening. It was also the first real observing night for a new mount, plus a new and unfamiliar collection of astrophotography tools.

In preparation for the night, I’d spent hours setting up and practicing with the hardware and software at home. I felt like I’d accomplished everything I could with the hardware and power distribution. Everything was working well.

My astrophotography computer was another matter. While Jane and I enjoyed traveling for our first year of retirement, my familiar inexpensive Asus laptop hadn’t been turned on for about a year. With any Windows PC, that leads to an immediate trip through “update hell.” Not only did I need hours of download and update time, the internal battery was completely toast.

Getting the battery replaced turned out to be painless, and during the downtime I was able to research the more modern tools imagers were using to navigate and capture data. I was ready to move past the old days of ST-4 guiding, into the world of ASCOM and PHD2.

The new mount is an Astro-Physics AP1100 GTO. It was acquired to support our mammoth AP180EDT refractor, replacing a somewhat aging and clumsy AP900 mount. I had only used the big refractor once to capture decent images over ten years ago, and had been unsuccessful since that time.

The AP1100 GTO is truly decades advanced from the old mount. It feels elegant and precise, even with the massive telescope on top. I added power and data distribution from Kendrick, and I was able to reduce the number of cables from computer to telescope to one USB 3.0 cable.

There was a clear night coming, leaving me with the mild anxieties of an unfamiliar site, on a “school night,” carrying a telescope that needs two people to mount into its rings and unload into its case.

AP180 telescope and mount.

The AP180 EDT on its new AP1100GTO mount and portable pier.

I arrived mid-afternoon and parked at my newly assigned pad, discovering plenty of friendly company — even some old friends from our in-town Sidewalk Astronomy group, Kay and Ken Hoevel. They were happy to help lift the telescope tube, and even insisted on feeding me marvelous grilled steak kebabs in the gorgeous evening twilight.

I made lots of other new friends, discovering shared interests that seem common among astronomers — things like airplanes and ham radio.

Kay told me one of her discoveries about GMARS: No matter what it is you left at home, there’s usually someone there who has one to lend you. In my case, it was a red flashlight, and a replacement 3V lithium battery. She managed to find spares of both in her kit.

I spent a wonderful time under a clear dark sky. I had a comfortable observing chair and binoculars to enjoy the winter Milky Way while the camera was capturing ancient photons. The chatter of nearby observers was familiar and comforting.

The new mount and old camera were both working like a dream. I was able to bounce around the late-winter early-spring sky, shooting 30 minutes of data on several old favorites for practice. I wrapped up about 1:00 a.m. by taking some flats to calibrate the data. I was ready to get out of the old. I couldn’t sleep though; I spent another few hours in my warm van doing some data reduction and stacking, relearning all my rusty skills.

The night was beautifully clear, but the seeing matched the forecast of fairly poor. That would be evident in the large stars and soft detail in the images. I’m still delighted with the results, and excited about the prospects.

Here are the targets for the evening:

My first selection was a bit ambitious. With the f/6 Traveler it’s difficult to get enough pixels on small planetary nebulae to render much detail. I wanted to see how the f/9 180 would do. I chose the Eskimo, NGC 2392, in Gemini. The full field still dwarfs the little planetary, but look how much detail is visible in a full-resolution crop.


The Eskimo, NGC2392, planetary nebula in Gemini

Here’s the cropped center of the image.

NGC 2392

Center full-resolution crop from the full-field NGC 2392 above, showing the interesting detail in the Eskimo.

Ursa Major was in prime position, so I thought I’d grab several favorites from there, starting with M51 the Whirlpool.

M 51

M51 the Whirlpool Galaxy in Ursa Major.

In the big long-focus telescope, M81 and M82 won’t fit in a single field, so I had to capture them separately. Well worth doing. Here’s M81:


M81 spiral galaxy in Ursa Major

M82 also reveals lots of detail in the tangled center of this irregular galaxy:


M82 irregular galaxy in Ursa Major

Seeing Coma Berenices rise in the dark eastern sky, I knew i had to grab the edge-on spiral NGC 4565:

NGC 4565

NGC 4565 in Coma Berenices

Clicking on any of the images above should give you the full 2048×2048 image.

Where to go from here …

This is the first new blog post from me in four years, and long overdue.

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I enjoy writing and reporting about stuff in my life: astronomy, travel, bridge, wine, photography, network systems.

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