As I sit through gloomy days and gloomy nights waiting patiently for this season’s imaging to get underway, I remembered the very odd start I had to this hobby. I don’t think I’ve shared this one before, so maybe now is a good time to do so.
I have always had an interest in Astronomy, my first degree at Sussex University (1975 – 1978) was a B.Sc. in Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. I must admit that it was a mistake doing something you love as part of a degree as it put me off Astronomy for a good 5 years. At that time I lived in Southwater near Horsham and although the skies were reasonable I didn’t do any Astronomy that I can remember, I didn’t have a telescope anyway, although I did have binoculars.
We then moved to a place just outside of Abingdon, Oxford, and I spent a little more time viewing the skies, through binoculars, mostly from White Horse Hill. Observing as I remember was reasonable from one side of the hill and really bad the other side where the Swindon skyglow lit up the sky. There was still nothing serious going on Astronomy-wise.
The next move was to Lyndhurst in the New Forest and surprisingly there was a slight increase in the Astronomy interest, especially as Halley’s comet was due at the time. I bought a huge pair of zoom binoculars (totally inappropriate for the job) and saw the comet from the open forest just over the road from my house. Seven years in Lyndhurst and nothing progressed much from the occasional night out with the binoculars.
We then moved to just outside Brockenhurst, and it must have been nearly ten years before I realised that for the first time in my life I had a few quid in my pocket and I also had half reasonable skies. I’m going to buy a telescope!! But what scope? There was a huge range of beautiful scopes to choose from back in 2002, so what do I pick? My first thought was I didn’t want a “Go To” scope as I wanted the “fun” of finding all those deep-sky goodies on my own. To that end I bought a Helios 6″ refractor (a truly excellent scope for the price) on an equatorial mount, a mount by the way that I never set up properly as I didn’t know how to. I managed to find the Ring nebula, and the Double Cluster, and I think that was pretty much it. All these globular clusters and other nebulae were completely elusive, I wasn’t having much “fun”. I knew almost immediately that I had made a big mistake in not buying a “Go To” scope, so cutting my losses I went and got one. Again, with such a huge offering of beautiful scopes, which one do I pick? Well I was going to choose the biggest one I could carry in and out of the house, which limited me to an 11″ reflector, and the Celestron Nexstar 11″ reflector (from David Hinds) also allowed you to put a thing called a “Hyperstar” on the front which allowed you to do ultra-fast imaging (so it seemed). Although I had no intention of doing any imaging I bought the 11″ SCT as it seemed to offer great flexibility.
The C11 arrived, and I thought I’d made another (even more expensive) mistake. It looked very complicated to set up, and to be honest, I thought it was beyond me to get it going. Having read the booklets at least a dozen times I got the scope outside on the first clear night and tried to set it up. I did what I thought was a 2-star alignment, but then when I told it to go to the first object, there was nothing in the viewfinder – huge disappointment. I think I must have chosen the wrong star or something because on the second clear night – it all worked!! I can clearly remember the night of Thursday 2nd May 2002 as if it were yesterday. It was the first night that I properly aligned my brand new 11″ Celestron GPS scope so that I could automatically go to all the objects I’d read about for many years – but never seen before. I wrote about the experience in a “Lateral Thoughts” article in the September 2002 issue of Physics World (IOP Publications) titled, somewhat sadly, “The most amazing two and a half hours of my life (so far)”. I had Norton’s Star Atlas by my side and managed to view all the objects on the page that had May objects I could view – astounding.
Now I was away! I was only ever interested in observing, which is why I wonder why I bought the Hyperstar a few months after getting the scope, along with binoviewers and two eyepieces of all the powers I could find. The binoviewers really transformed my observing and made it a wonderful experience to watch the skies. At some point I must have gotten pretty fed up carrying the C11 in and out of doors every clear night, so I bought a Pulsar observatory to set it up in. I removed the excellent tripod and put the C11 on a custom made Aluminium pillar that was anchored to a concrete block that went through the obsevatory floor. Observing was made even better by being in the shelter of the observatory and I spent many happy (freezing) nights observing the heavens.
I guess I must have spent nearly 2 years doing observational work when it struck me that I was always going back to the (very) few objects that looked good through the scope – and I suppose I was starting to get bored. This was bad! However, I had that Hyperstar that had been sitting in a drawer for 2 years, so I bought a Starlight Xpress H9C OSC CCD to go with it and bolted the two to the front of the C11 having removed the secondary mirror. What happened then was an Epiphany. A short 10-second exposure showed an order of magnitude more stars than I could see through the binoviewers, and it got even more exciting. A very short exposure on the Horsehead nebula region showed the Horsehead as clear as day – but I never managed to observe it visually, even using a bunch of different filters. That was the end of my observational Astronomy, and I am ashamed to say I haven’t looked through an eyepiece since. So there I have a padded case full of 2 sets of every eyepiece, binoviewers, and a bunch of other stuff, just sitting there for 17 years.
Things progressed very quickly for the first few months. I was using the scope in Alt-Az mode as the C11 I bought was fork-mounted, and I was surprised to see I got star trailing with exposures much beyond 20-seconds. What was that all about? So then I learnt about Equatorial mounts and bought a wedge to turn the fork-mounted Alt-Az C11 into an equatorially mounted imaging beast. The wedge in turn needed me to get a new Aluminium pillar made up and then I had to go through the painful experience of polar aligning this thing as well – as I said, a lot of progress and a lot of new learning, in a very short time. So then that should be it shouldn’t it? Nope, for exposures of a few minutes the Celestron mount wasn’t up to the job unguided – so I then had to purchase a guide scope and guide camera to lock onto a star to enable longer exposure times. In addition, the wedge had an open box end section which deformed as the scope slewed across the skies. This in turn threw out the polar alignment and required me to “tankify” the wedge by closing off the open box end with a thumping great 5mm thick Aluminium plate. The wedge is now rock-solid wherever the scope is pointing in the sky.
So my imaging proper started in the Autumn of 2004 with this basic Hyperstar setup. I quickly learnt, and overcame, the difficulties of imaging with the original Hyperstar which didn’t have collimation or camera angle adjusters and started to turn out half reasonable (as far as I was concerned) deep-sky images.
And that’s how it all began.