Nov 30, 2011

A Pox on You, Jimmy Dugan!

It's supposed to be hard. If it
wasn't hard, everyone would
do it. The hard... is what makes
it great.

It was Tom Hanks character Jimmy Dugan in the movie A League of Their Own who said "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great."  While I can appreciate the wisdom being offered by the fictional alcoholic played by Hanks, I've had some difficulty several temper tantrums actually living those words when it comes to the hobby demoralizing obsession of astrophotography these last few months.  His quote very much describes astronomical imaging in general.  Thus my pronouncement of a pox upon the aforementioned fictional character.  Oh, I've been around and I've been busy, but I've little useful to show for my efforts in that time if we're talking purely about astrophotography.  Not that I'm complaining because there have been so many other awesome things happening that it takes the sting out of my imaging struggles.  I'll see if I can't catch things up over the next week or two.  A lot has happened.

When driving in to the observing
site on the forest service road
you get a great view of the
dome housing the Discovery
Channel Telescope.

 It all started back in September when I made the decision to get one last trip up North in before winter took over the mountainous terrain of northern Arizona.  The Saguaro Astronomy Club has an observing site near Happy Jack in the shadow of the Discovery Channel Telescope and I've observed and imaged from there with great success on multiple occasions.  This was not to be one of those occasions and it afflicted all who came to the site that particular weekend.  My wife and kids had exercised a greater measure of common sense than I possess and chose not to come to 7000' (2133m) elevation at the end of September to sleep in a tent.  Cue the foreshadowing for a future post as it was very, very cold in the tent.  I met some friends from my astronomy club who were all more prepared for the autumn weather than I was since they all owned recreational vehicles of some sort to keep them warm at night. 

Ken's new custom pier for his
CGE Pro mounted C14 is just
  I was quite excited to see my friend and fellow imager Ken because he'd added some new equipment to his setup and I was anxious to ogle it before sunset.  He had purchased a sexy new crayford focuser for his C14 and it didn't disappoint.  He had also added the Starizona SCT Corrector to his arsenal and I was interested to see some of his results. But wait - there's more!!  What he hadn't told me was that he found the act of hoisting that C14 optical tube onto the tripod mounted CGE Pro to be as difficult as you would imagine.  The C14 is a generous 40+ pounds and the saddle of the CGE Pro sits somewhere around 5.5 feet (1.67m) off of the ground.  To solve his problem, he had commissioned the construction of a portable pier from a local welder somewhere in Scottsdale.  I forgot to ask because I was so blown away by the coolness of the pier - but the whole rig is easily 2 feet shorter now and getting the telescope into the saddle of the mount is a much less risky affair.

My friends Mitch & Lori arrived in time to get setup before dark and a couple of other observers were there as well.  The night sky was glorious - truly glorious.  Crisp and cool air with unbelievable transparency and a limiting magnitude somewhere around 6.5.  It was only nightfall that alerted me to the presence of the unmentionable astronomer - Murphy.  Yes, he of the famous law and he was displeased with all in attendance.  First it struck Lori who was having trouble getting her laptop to talk to any of the imaging equipment.  Then another imager named Jim had some sort of power surge that blew out his laptop - forever.  It had taken the laptop dirtnap.  Another observer gave up early and retreated to his class A motorhome to watch baseball.

I was having massive struggles of my own.  As I attempted to align the telescope I simply couldn't get it to accurately point at anything.  Each slew to a new alignment star would result in the pointing being off by upwards of 10º each time.  I checked and rechecked everything I could think of but I just couldn't get the mount to behave well enough to even get a useable alignment out of it.  I looked longingly at my 15" Obsession waiting patiently at the other end of my observing area to be put to some good use visually.  Instead I chose to continue fighting with my temperamental CGE mount.  I eventually figured out that the mount was missing it's target always in declination by up to 10º and it wasn't consistent in magnitude or direction.  Eventually, knowing that I had a decent polar alignment I took what I could get and resolved to slew manually with the keypad.  I would find my targets and plate solve my way to the framed image that I wanted.  By this time it was after 11pm and my frustration level was off the chart.  I kicked off a series of exposures of M31, but seeing that the autoguider was having to work really hard it didn't expect much from the effort.  M31 was the only object I attempted to shoot the entire weekend.  To add the final punctuation mark to the evening, Ken's netbook was the next electronic device to go take a dirtnap.  A power spike of some sort blew out that piece of equipment as well.  Clearly wasn't supposed to be a great night for imaging.  The processing is overdone and garish, but this was the result of my efforts on a night I'd generally like to forget.

Looking over at the Obsession, I realized that I had wasted most of a night of nearly perfect observing conditions wrestling with astrophotography gear when I could have been enjoying the heavens.  In great frustration I resolved at that point that I wouldn't again waste another great night with a camera when I could get something enjoyable out of it with my own eyes.  I spent a very chilly night buried in a sleeping bag in the tent in anticipation of a night of nothing but visual observing on Saturday.  It was sometime around the point where the temperature dropped below freezing that I realized I might be getting too old for cold weather tent camping.  Saturday night's observing didn't happen.  Clouds rolled in and never left.  Soon after dark on Saturday night I packed up and went home defeated.

The next weekend I took the mount down to Starizona to have it looked at, and Dean spent several hours working on it working it over.  Let me just say now, that Dean Koenig of Starizona is the James Brown of amateur astronomy.  That is to say, he's the hardest working man in the telescope business.  Any time I go to see him he has twenty different things going on and he still goes far above and beyond the call of duty in his efforts.  Talking with other people that I know, they say the same things about him and all the crew down there.  They're truly an asset and I hope the astronomy community of Tucson recognizes how good they have it with him being the local shop.  He took it apart and regreased it, tightened everything up and adjusted the backlash.  It seemed to behave like a brand new mount and I was excited to get out and put it through its paces.  That wouldn't come for a couple of weeks.  More on that next time.