When we have a few expected clear nights strung together, I try and get out with telescope and/or camera to enjoy the night sky — such as it is in modern towns. And so it was that Thursday I set up the “new” Sky-Watcher mount with the intention of practicing polar and stellar alignment.
In order for a computerized equatorial telescope to aim at the celestial targets one seeks, it must be sitting level, it needs to know: where it is (latitude and longitude), what time it is — down to the second, the location of a couple of bright stars, and have its axis of rotation perfectly aligned with Polaris — the North Star — actually a specific point in space near Polaris! If you get all of those right, computerized mounts are great; you simply tap into a control device what you want to view, tap another button to tell it to “go-to” the target, and bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, motors whir, the telescope moves, and in a few moments you’re enjoying wonders of the universe. If you get everything right. If you don’t get everything right, it’s frustration and mosquitoes in the dark.
So Thursday night I managed to get the polar alignment better, probably, than I have ever before. I was using a telescope control app that seemed to occasionally get the location wrong and that’s a big deal. Eventually I was able to get the telescope to approximately locate objects and got decent views of Jupiter and Saturn before calling it quits — there was a lot of struggle involved. I put the weather cover over the scope and headed in.
Friday night was cloudy. I needed the rest anyway.
Saturday night saw hazy skies, glowing from ground-based light pollution but with cloudy nights ahead, I uncovered the telescope — already polar-aligned — and was particularly meticulous about date and time entry using the hand controller instead of the phone app. After a bit of trouble finding alignment stars in the soupy sky, I enjoyed seeing the message saying setup “COMPLETED.”
From then on, the system worked “as advertised.” So I keyed in Jupiter, and Saturn, followed by a number of other objects. Photography wasn’t the primary objective — conquering proper setup was — but with the telescope balanced for use with a camera, what the heck! I was glad I had the camera at the ready because many of the objects I wanted to view were not visible by eye in the milky sky. Time after time the scope pointed at the objects of interest. Wonderful! It’s been years since I had a go-to telescope work as well as this.
The field of view allowed the Perseus Double Cluster to be recorded in one camera frame. I was using my Canon EOS 6D Mark 2 DSLR mounted at the telescope’s prime focus — it’s essentially using the telescope as an 1,800mm telephoto lens.
One of my favorites, Messier 82, showed faintly in an image (also not shown here) and was invisible to the eye on account of light pollution. The pairing of M81 and M82 is one of my favorite galactic sights though a telescope; I’m going to need better skies or a different location to see them again!
My photos, though certainly not spectacular, revealed more galaxies than I’d yet seen in my lifetime. Barnard’s Galaxy (not pictured here) was revealed by the camera. I shot a photo of the star Mirfak because I thought it would be pretty with diffraction spikes. When I viewed the image on my computer, several small streaks with central bulges showed up — distant galaxies in the background!
A first viewing and new fascination of mine is the Saturn Nebula: a planetary nebula around 5,200 light-years distant, which resembles planet Saturn in shape only. It’s a beautifully complex cloud of star-stuff that photographs in vivid color. Its image via DSLR is disappointingly small and required much cropping to see in any detail. I was delighted to capture a bit of its complexity and I’ll be visiting the object repeatedly for viewing and photographic challenge.
I also captured my best image, to date, of globular cluster Messier 2 — a beautiful ball of stars 55,000 light-years away. Capturing the brightest stars is easy but the cluster, one of the larger globular clusters known, is composed of around 150,000 stars. The cluster looks like a pretty fuzz ball by eye, photographs reveal some of those thousands of stars, and the best images look like diamond dust.
Flashes were lighting the sky to the south and east and clouds were beginning to flow in. A distant thunderstorm was drifting in my general direction. I called it a night at about 12:30 a.m., and tore down the entire setup stowing it in case of stormy weather.
It was a very good night, this further adventure in astronomy, giving me hope I’ve finally worked out the kinks and can more fully enjoy the experience.