'Telescoping'

2016.07.03 in photography

My father, for as long as I can remember (I'm sure my mother can vouch for the many years before me), has spent an inordinate proportion of his free time designing and building telescopes, gazing skyward, and publicly educating and advocating a love for space and amateur astronomy. From decades of Stellafane conventions, local astronomy club meetings, and sidewalk observing sessions, to running public telescope building classes, building machines to make grinding mirrors easier, and driving around the state collecting light pollution data, astronomy really is one of his passions.

Growing up in that environment meant a love for a starry night sky was basically a given. That's why I was very surprised back in October, when I realized it had been quite a while — probably years! — since I'd spent any time looking through a telescope (or really even seen a dark sky, living in the middle of a seven-million-person metro area).

A dark sky above San José.



I resolved to promptly fix this lack of starlight, and did some telescope shopping! Given my previous history of DIY projects, I opted for a off-the-shelf solution, much unlike the telescopes I grew up with; this was for the best, though, as it was the only way that there would be light coming through the eyepiece before 2025. Naturally, I also decided to combine this with one of my favorite hobbies, and got all the components needed to attach my camera to the telescope.

A few weeks (and well over one hundred pounds of voluminous packages from Orion, much to the dismay of apartment complex staff) later, Matt and I set out, car filled with mirrors, glass, cameras, and snacks, and … didn't see anything! The telescope didn't even come out of the car. We had headed up Mt. Hamilton, east of San José, with a vague destination in mind, but had not confirmed that it was actually open after dark, which it was not (apparently, the local astronomy group has a deal with the park, but random people like us can't open the gate). So, we bailed out for the day, and awaited another clear night.

The Fiesta, full of bits and pieces, on our most recent outing.



We finally got first light on November 7th, after spending a good portion of the night figuring out how to perform the requisite polar alignment and going through the three-star alignment process at least twice (having the first time aligned with a star that definitely wasn't Polaris, somehow). We had found a workable, dark, quiet spot, south of San José: Coyote Lake, near Morgan Hill. We had previously driven to Coyote Lake for a meteor shower, so we knew it was accessible at night, unlike Grant Park.

Coyote Lake, facing north, before it gets too dark!





The telescope, all set up and ready to go next to the lake.



We peered upwards for a number of hours that night, letting the telescope's software guide us to whatever was visible at the time (any chance of finding things without the computer also sat — or probably slept, given the time difference — three thousand miles away in Vermont). Alternating between looking through the eyepiece and attaching the camera (and refocusing constantly because of this swapping), we saw galaxies, nebulae, clusters, and stars galore:

The Orion Nebula, one of the brightest and easiest to see.



Seeing the picture of Orion pop up on the camera was the first big "wow" moment for me: in the telescope, with my terrible eyes, it looks like a ill-defined grey smudge, but the colors that come out of the camera after just half-minute exposures are totally incredible (if not a bit out of focus).

A very faint image of the Andromeda Galaxy, our closest neighbor.



A number of these pictures have streaks from meteors in them if you look closely; in person, we saw many throughout the night. A pleasant but unplanned surprise!

As the night went on, the temperature dropped — thirty degree nightly swings are no surprise, here, and this night was no different:



Even with warm clothing, eventually the cold got to us and we packed up and headed home! All-in-all, a very successful first evening with the new telescope.

Some of the Pleiades, with their whispy dust clouds just barely perceptible.



The winter and spring went by without going out again; between work, travel, weather, and laziness, many opportunities were missed (I did actually take the telescope out once by myself during these months, but left a critical component behind and had to turn back after getting it half set up — a good lesson never to repeat).



We finally resolved to get out again, and blocked off a new-moon weekend on the calendar: Independence Day weekend, 2016. When I put this on the calendar, I didn't make the connection, but as we got closer to the date I worried a bit more about the camping crowds. Luckily, it seems like San José is not a prime camping spot, because there were no crowds — just a few people fishing nearby (though, using white lights).

Matt doing the three-star alignment procedure — this time, only once!



The telescope setup process, which Matt is now the expert on, remains non-trivial and entertaining. This time I also brought a pair of binoculars to use in the meantime, but without a guide I didn't have much luck finding anything (besides an airplane!).

As soon as we got set up, we pointed the telescope towards the quickly-setting planets: Mars and Saturn. Once we bumped up the magnification a bit, Saturn's rings were readily visible — one of the bigger "wow" moments of the night — sadly, since the current photography setup I am using involves putting the camera directly in place of the eyepiece, the magnification isn't sufficient to make anything out in the picture below. I'm looking into other approaches that put the camera behind the eyepiece and would theoretically allow for high-magnification imaging... we'll see, next time!

Saturn, but you'll just have to trust me on this.



This time, the Trifid Nebula (and the Ring, not pictured here) provided the camera-assisted pop-of-purple, in place of Orion (which is not visible in the summer).

The Trifid Nebula, with its bizarre dark arms.



I really enjoy observing clusters, mostly because they provide something slightly more visible to the telescoped-eye than the smudge of a nebula; it's easy to make out the mess of stars even without a camera.

A globular cluster; sadly, because we haven't gotten into the habit of taking notes, I don't know which one.



We stayed out until past two, once again forced in by the cold (in the middle of July!) and a need for sleep.

The Whirlpool Galaxy, with its companion.



Overall, I'm glad to have revisited this part of my childhood, and I'm excited to get out again! I can't wait to see what more practice will bring to the pictures, and for the fun we'll have out in the dark amongst the stars. (Once we get a bit more experienced and quick with the setup, I intend to take others along — at least Alicia, but... if you want to come, let me know!).

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