AP Corner - March 2021

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2021.

How I became an Astro Imager

By Ernie Felder

  Several years ago I planned my first imaging trip to Fort Griffin State Historic Site. It is located about 30 minutes north of Albany, Texas. A good six hour drive from Houston.  With a Bortle 2 to 3 sky and very low horizons it's a popular location for amateur astronomers. Away from the regular campsites there are seven astronomy campsites with 30 amp power and water. These sites use dark sky protocols.

  When I left home it was 80 degrees and the typical April rain but the forecast at Fort Griffin called for clearing in the evening and a high pressure area was to build in overnight. The rain quit just as I crossed IH20 at Eastland. To the north I could see blue sky in the distance.

  I arrived at around 4 pm in the afternoon and the temperature had dropped to 55 degrees. My wife and I set up the tent and coffeemaker. At the time I was just starting into DSO imaging. I had an old orange tube Celestron C8, a modded Canon T2i. These were mounted on an old Celestron CG5 that had been roboscoped for goto with Meade Autostar motors and controller. I setup the scope and mount and waited for Polaris to make an appearance.  Then I did my polar alignment and we went into Graham for dinner. Back then the astronomy camping area was very secluded and had a locked gate about a quarter of a mile away. If you had a reservation they would give you the gate code so you could come and go. They changed the code daily. I don't believe they do that anymore.

  When we returned it was very dark. I have to this day never seen such transparency and good seeing at the same time. My first target was M51 the Whirlpool Galaxy. Because of the primitive mount I was limited to 30 second subs. As the subs started downloading I knew I was getting really good data for my jury rigged setup.

The temperature started dropping like a rock. By midnight it was 35 degrees. Target number two was M104 the Sombrero Galaxy.

I got those subs started and crawled in the tent and sleeping bag to try and keep warm. I woke up around 3 am to the sounds of coyotes not very far off. I went out and shut the equipment off. For about a half an hour I just sat there watching the beauty of a truly dark sky. I could see a lot of structure in the Milky Way. Occasionally a meteor would streak across the sky so bright that the light spread onto the surrounding landscape.  As I was sitting there in the silence a coyote walked past the campsite no more that 20 feet away. He stopped momentarily as if to acknowledge me and then went on his way. I crawled back into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. By morning the temperature had dropped to 28 degrees and a thin film of ice from the previous days rain coated my truck.

  Later in the week back home after post processing was complete I felt a great sense of acomplishment. I was an astro imager. These days my imaging is done with much, much better equipment. My camera now cost more than all of the equipment I used at Fort Griffin combined. And it's the least expensive item in the imaging train.  I sit in my warm house and remotely connect to my dome. I set up a night of imaging and go to bed knowing that the software will keep on after I'm fast asleep. In the morning the data is downloaded, the mount and dome are parked and all power is turned off. I get much better images now but it will never fill me with as much pride and awe as that cold April night in Fort Griffin with a cheap camera, a cheap scope, a homemade mount and the desire to photograph the heavens. Oh, and the coyote.

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