Archive for August, 2012

Looking at the front face view of the array, top left we have the TS 80mm triplet APO, top right is the 80mm Megrez guide scope, and occupying both lower slots are the pair of Sky 90s.  Looking at the back there are three M26C 10-megapixel one-shot colour CCDs and a Starlight Xpress guide camera connected to one of the M26Cs.  Look at all that spaghetti 🙂


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Today the TS 80mm triplet APO (with flattener) arrived after ordering from Bern at Modern Astronomy – great service Bern, now let’s see what this little scope can do 🙂  On the back of the TS 80mm is an M26C 10-Megapixel one-shot colour CCD to go alongside the other 2 M26Cs on the two Sky 90s.  So each exposure will be bringing down 30 Megapixels at a time and I will be grabbing 3x the actual imaging time spent in exposures.  This is good news.  It means a typical 4-hour imaging session will bag me 12-hours worth of data, and over the last 8 years I have found I need around 8-12 hours of good data to make a very good image.  So what used to take me 2 or 3 good clear nights I can now get in a single evening – excellent.  As always, all I need now are some clear Moonless skies to be in business.  As this was apparently the wettest summer on record I am not hopeful.  Images to follow shortly.


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I have two desktops and a single laptop connected up to three M26C cameras in the mini-WASP observatory.  I fired up Tom How’s synchronisation program to make sure it can control 3 cameras o.k. – it did of course.  Next test was to see if I could take LONG exposures with cameras 1 & 2 (as if I was taking narrowband data) whilst taking multiple short exposures with camera 3 – the dithering is linked to camera 1.  This worked fine too, so I can take multiple RGB exposures with the TS 80mm triplet APO whilst taking a single narrowband image of the same region with the 2 Sky 90s.  How cool is that?


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I have returned the faithful old M25C to the Hyperstar and taken the new M26C into the mini-WASP observatory (North dome) awaiting the arrival of the TS 80mm triplet APO.  Expect rain and cloud for at least the next 6 months.

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First off a big thank you to Tom How for patiently walking me through how to configure his fantastic “synch” program to accommodate a second “slave” camera.  Tom has written some very useful code that works with Maxim DL that allows you to use multiple cameras – WITH DITHERING!!  We all know the problems involved in trying to do this, well Tom’s program allocates one of the cameras as the “master” – for convenience this is the one I have the guide camera connected to, you can then string as many slaves as you want off the master.  When you click “start” on the master camera it triggers the slaves into imaging as well.  You have the slaves set on only one repeat, the master can have as many repeats (subs) as you fancy.  The master will finishing imaging and it will then have the built in delay time for the dithering to settle down.  If you have the slaves set to the same exposure time as the master, then they too will have downloaded their data within the master’s settling time.  The master will then fire up again to take the second sub and in doing so will trigger the slaves to start taking sub number 2 as well.  It is a great system.

So why did I need to modify the synch program?  Because I am preparing to add a third imager to the mini-WASP array.  Currently there are two Sky 90s with an M26C on each scope with an overlapped FOV so that I am going for a bigger FOV rather than grabbing twice as much data, in a given time, on the same object.  The third scope, which I ordered from Bern at Modern Astronomy, is a very interesting-looking TS 80mm triplet APO at f#6.  The plan is to put an M26C on this scope (which means putting the M25C back on the Hyperstar, which to be honest is a better match for the Hyperstar anyway) and use it to image the OVERLAPPING part of the two Sky 90s.  It will do this at high resolution (2.58 arc seconds per pixel) and it will provide higher resolution data exactly where it is needed, right in the overlap region of the two Sky 90s.

I got enough time last outing to see that my friend’s (Polydoros) Sky 90 is good enough for the second imager, even though it does have slightly pinched optics, I’m just going to have to live with that until I get my own Sky 90 properly collimated, which might mean I live with it forever 🙂

I’m surprised at just how fast these projects can run away from you, but I am relieved that this one all seems to be coming together just in time for this year’s imaging season.

Now all I need are some clear Moonless skies – that could be another long wait 🙁


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Here is a clip of Neil Armstrong at the Starmus Festival last year in Tenerife.  For me it was an almost overwhelming experience being in the presence of the first man to walk on the Moon, and he appeared to be very fit and well back then for an 80 year old guy with a LOT of miles on the clock.

He really was a very modest and unassuming man – considering what he had achieved in his life.  You can see in the video clip that he was beginning to get a little uncomfortable towards the end of the standing ovation he received – he just didn’t seem to need that stuff – what a truly great man.  R.I.P. Neil Armstrong August 5th 1930 – August 25th 2012, age 82, an inspiration to a whole generation of schoolkids, like me, who stayed up all night watching that totally unforgettable moment in July 1969.

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O.K. so last night I put a friend’s Sky 90 in place of the Sky 90 that continues to defy all my attempts at collimation and unbelievably it was clear at 9:00 p.m.  Brilliant, too early to start imaging, but just right to go out and get the Paramount homed and then set to a bright star ready to begin work.  Except that by midnight I hadn’t managed to home the mount 🙁 🙁  Worked out that it was a hardware problem rather than software so looking into things had to wait until this morning.  The sensor that was giving me problems was on the declination drive, so the first thing to find out is where the declination sensor is hidden.  Quick visit to the Software Bisque site and there is actually an article on sensor replacement – great!  Except, not so great, is it really hidden that deeply in the bowels of the Paramount – oh no 🙁 🙁  Nothing to do really apart from bite the bullet and start pulling apart the declination drive.  Now in dismantling this unit I find that the engineering is not as brilliant as one might expect from the outside finish.  In fact to release the rear part of the containing box it is clear that the designers had nearly made the classic error of drawing something that couldn’t be assembled (or disassembled) – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been mental enough to take your Paramount declination drive apart.  Anyway – I finally get to the block that holds the optical sensor (it is in fact one of those plastic slot sensors I’ve used before to trigger flash units) and I take a good look at the emitter and detector faces – all looks clear to me.  Take a brief look at the 4-cable ribbon cable that feeds the sensor and there is a deep depression across the cable where it was clearly pinched up against the metal through-hole in the Paramount frame.  Hmm, could be the source of an intermittent short that decided to finally call it quits last night.  So I put insulating tape across the ribbon cable (the other two cables by the way that came through the same hole BOTH had a protective plastic mesh sheaf around them to prevent pinching/chaffing damage – so why not the sensor ribbon cable??) and also thoroughly cleaned the emitter and sensor faces using lens cleaning solution.  Put the whole thing back together and fired up the Sky 6.  Homed the mount and it went to home from its park position smoothly and quickly (something it hasn’t done for months).  So for the moment the thing seems to work.

In all the projects I have undertaken I have never encountered one that has fought back so long, hard, and furiously as this mini-WASP array.  It has taken my patience to the limit and well beyond.  Still what it has taught me is this.  If you are going to multiply up the number of imaging scopes, cameras, and the computers needed to drive them, then your potential problems are going to increase by a similar number and the chances of SOMETHING going wrong are also increased by a similar number.  On the other hand, if you lose one imager, you can still image with the other 2 or 3 – so I guess it comes down to swings and roundabouts in the end.  You also need to think about the increase in set-up time before you actually begin imaging, you need to check the focus and collimation of each scope/camera before you kick off with a night’s imaging.  There’s a lot more to think about when running a parallel imaging rig, and when it’s late, dark, and freezing cold outside, and all your brain is interested in is trying to keep the stupid creature that owns it from dying of hypothermia – you really don’t want to have to think about troubleshooting system problems.

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On YouTube.

See the Paramount ME casually throw around over 90 pounds of kit as if it were weightless 🙂


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If you don’t know what the Fermi paradox is, then it’s pretty pointless reading any further.

For those that do know what the Fermi paradox is, then for what it’s worth, my belief up until 2 years ago was that the Universe is indeed teaming with life, including intelligent life, but that the distances separating intelligent life-forms is so great that the probability of them ever crossing paths is infinitely small.  This is perhaps a good thing.  When we started leaving our little islands and discovering other lands, our encounters with our new found friends on distant shores were pretty detrimental on the whole for the poor blighters we visited.  So IF there is intelligent life out there, and it is separated from us by uncrossable distances – maybe that’s a good thing anyway.  As I said – this is how my thinking went up until June 2011 when things got suddenly turned upside down.

June 2011 was the Starmus Festival in Tenerife and there were some really great speakers there on SETI, and also life on Earth.  I got an answer I really didn’t like from one guy trying to create artificial life.  By “I didn’t like” I mean that it was about to turn my belief of a Universe teeming with life on its head.  I basically asked if there was any active research going on to see if any of Earth’s life forms were based on things other than DNA.  The short answer was not really as nothing other than DNA-based life has ever been seen.  Now this is more than a bit worrying.  DNA as you know is a pretty complex molecule (that is putting it lightly).  Now if life as we know it requires a molecule of this complexity to be put together, in its entirety for it to do its replicating job, then what are the chances of this one-off highly improbable event occurring.  O.K. so yes, I’m well aware that it DID happen here, but was that a case of a pretty near zero probability in a pretty near infinite Universe?  We have evolved, over millions of years, we know all this from the fossil record.  So where are all the DNA pre-cursors that led to the present life-molecule?  Where are all the half starts and dead-ends you would expect with a “Blind Watchmaker” approach to making a DNA molecule?  There doesn’t seem to be any.  What happens when you look at the oldest existing life forms on the planet?  Is it still DNA with these guys?  Seems to be, seems to be DNA all the way down.

Now I have a problem.  There seem to be no pre-cursors, no dead ends no false-starts – just the finished machine.  What is the probability of a DNA molecule coming together, given that you have both the right environmental conditions and all the right elements to hand?  I would venture to say not big.  Richard Dawkins played with computer generated bimorphs, very simple code to produce bilaterally symmetric “insects”.  When he came to write his book he wanted to include pictures of the initial bimorphs he had created, but he couldn’t reproduce them.  Even though the code was very simple, extremely complex behaviour can result from just a few lines of very simple code (fractals, Stephen Wolfram).  But the DNA code is far from simple to begin with, so what are the chances of stumbling upon this magic molecule “Blind Watchmaker” style?  I would venture to say as near dammit to zero as you can possibly imagine.

My argument may appear at first sight to be rather like the fallacious argument as to the improbability of the evolution of the eye, but it is not.  At least in the case of the eye you had a fully functioning cell to work with in the first place.  The DNA problem is going right back to square one.  The creation of an incredibly complex molecule that is able to precisely replicate with error coding built in.  Sorry guys but this is not just the (relatively) simple evolution of an eye (or a Bombardier beetle) – this is a whole different ballpark.

So I am now in the very depressing state of believing that the answer to Fermi’s paradox is that there are no other intelligent life forms out there in the vast expanse of our Universe.

Sir Arthur C Clarke said that either answer (that there IS, or there IS NOT life “out there”) is equally disturbing.  I beg to differ with Sir Arthur.  If we are indeed the only intelligent life form in the Universe, and we go on as we are, then we are likely to also snuff out this unique oasis of life, in the cosmological blink of an eye.

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Here is the Type I Curta calculator that was sent from the States last week (arrived today after a week’s delay in Customs).  This is an August 1956 version and is in near mint condition.  Done a few multiplications on it – works a treat, purrs away as you turn the handle.  Pure magic 🙂 🙂

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