Mar 19, 2013

Messier and the ED152

After driving through a punishing thunderstorm
to get to the campsite, I was greeted with a
fantastic rainbow to start my first night out.
It was the best of was the worst of times.  So said Dickens to open A Tale of Two Cities.  Clearly, Dickens wasn't an amateur astronomer and clearly he did not tag along with me on my latest jaunt to the desert.  Had he done so it might have gone something like "It was a freakin' awesome time!". 

In my less fun, but better paying actual job I've been flat killing it as of late.  I've had more work than I know what to do with.  This is always a blessing when you're self employed.  It's been good through most of this long, grinding recession and I've been careful not to complain (much) about such a first world problem as too many people trying to give me business.  Eventually it does take its toll and I was ready for a vacation.  Early in the year I scheduled a nine day outing to the desert culminating in the Saguaro Astronomy Club's annual Messier Marathon.  I look forward to this event every year.  I also look forward to the East Valley Astronomy Club's All Arizona Star Party held at the same site in autumn each year.  If you're reading this and you're dense, that was your hint to clear your calendar and make plans for the event.  It doesn't appear that they've announced the date yet - but it's a pretty good bet that you'll want to plan for November 1st and 2nd.  Just sayin'.

Doing Time

Over the nine days of the trip I had a couple of goals astronomy-wise.  I wanted to put my new Explore Scientific ED152CF through its paces.  It's a 6" f/8 apochromatic triplet and is designed to be the big brother of the popular ED127 refractor.  I've professed my love more than once for the ED127 and I've been quietly sitting on the new telescope since early January waiting for a chance to put it to use.  Other than a few hours of hastily stacked hydrogen alpha data I had not been able to use the telescope.  I'm happy to report that I was able to collect a huge amount of data over the nine nights that I was in the desert - about 60 hours worth of it.  Stay tuned for the first color image from the scope over the next few days. 

My second goal was to try my hand at some time lapse photography.  I had always been interested in trying my hand at it.  With a few pointers from friend and fellow amateur Tom Polakis, I made the decision to use some of my time to give it a go.  Below is the first of the time lapses that I shot and completed during the week.  This was setup and shot as soon as the weather cleared for the first time - about midnight on Saturday, March 9th.  It's not perfect, and you can see if you watch closely that dew was an issue at some points.  But it was my first and I was really satisfied with the outcome.


Get To The Telescope Already!!

What is there to say?  It's gorgeous and looks like it belongs on the AP900.  The OTA alone weighs a mere 24 pounds which I found impressive for such a large telescope.  I don't know if I would want to deal with a larger refractor than this if I was taking it to the field.  Emphasis on "I don't know".  If somebody wants to give me a larger refractor so that I can test that thought I would be more than willing.  But I digress....
At some point, there will be a full review of the scope coming.  Once I feel like I've developed a good understanding of its performance and its nuances, but I do have some first impressions to share.  A common question already has been from people wondering how it compares to the ED127.  In short, take the ED127 carbon fiber and scale it up to a much larger OTA.  Even though it's only an inch of aperture, the physical size of the scope is much larger.  If you haven't seen my review of the ED127 it's a good place to start.  It has many similarities.  It has the same flip around dew shield.  Some people don't like it but I'm a fan of it.  The scope is also delivered in a similar, but much larger transport case.  The total package when UPS dropped it off at my door was 90 pounds.  Fortunately, the folks at Explore Scientific considered that and the case is wheeled at one end making it much easier to transport. 
One of my complaints about the ED127 was the focuser.  I did not love it.  This has definitely been remedied on the ED152.  It comes standard with a 3" Feathertouch focuser from Starlight Instruments.  It is most certainly up to the task of carrying your heaviest eyepiece and I have no doubt it can handle any imaging load that I'm capable of affording and attaching to it.  Another complaint of mine was the threaded dust cap being too close to the glass.  The dust cap on the ED152 is not threaded and fits snugly on the OTA.  I have little concern about hitting the glass with this dust cap.  A great improvement for the visual observer is the finderscope.  The ED152 comes with the same illuminated reticle and correct image finder that you've seen on the other Explore Scientific scopes.  The kicker is that it's also a right angle finder - much easier to deal with when you're finding objects that are high in the sky.  Finally, the finderscope mount has an ingenious feature.  The mounting itself that holds the rings is drilled out from front to back with a small sight hole.  I imagine that this sight hole will make that initial alignment of the finderscope and telescope a simple operation as you can use the sight hole to get a rough alignment.
I'll have a better formulated opinion of the optical performance once I process some of the data that I collected but my first impression is very positive.  The quality of the data appears to be on par with that of my ED127 so I'll extrapolate to say that the ED152 is fulfilling it's role as the big brother admirably.  I'll comment again once I've completed an image or two. 
I can hear it now..."What don't you like about it Mike?" As I said, a full review is coming but there is one minor quibble - the stock dovetail.  It's short.  Being only about 6" long I didn't feel comfortable with it in the saddle of my AP900.  I didn't have any issues with it, but I was never comfortable either.  I intended from the start to replace it with a much heavier duty dovetail and I did eventually do that. 
My second time lapse of the week was indeed the telescope itself.  On March 11th, I started the observing run from CCDAutoPilot about 30 minutes before sunset and walked away.  The time lapse is an entire night of imaging without human intervention at any point.  The telescope collected data on 3 objects over 9 hours while focusing every 60 minutes.  The telescope collected dawn flats and parked itself at the conclusion.  The video ends just as flats are being collected.

The Marathon

The observing trip finished with the Messier Marathon.  I got to see and talk with people I don't get to see often enough.  Moonlight was a factor as the moon was nearly first quarter but it didn't stop us from having a good time.  Kevin from Woodland Hills Camera and Telescope made the drive out from Los Angeles and spent a couple of days with us.  Kevin brought some goodies with him - the new 25mm ES100 eyepiece.  We tested it thoroughly and side by side with the gold standard of wide field eyepieces - the TeleVue 31mm Nagler.  The general answer was a little different depending on who you asked.  Some liked the ES100 better than the Nagler (including myself) and some liked the venerable TeleVue.  Everyone who did the side by side comparison did agree that the ES100 was a worthy adversary.  I liked the darker background of the higher power eyepiece and thought that colors looked more saturated through it.  Most people agreed with me on this assessment.  I thought that the edge correction was similar on both eyepieces but many didn't agree with me there giving the edge to the Nagler.  I've been very impressed with the ES100 eyepieces that I've been fortunate to use and I did end up ordering one of the 25mm for myself. 

Kevin from Woodland Hills Camera & Telescope
spent the early evening capturing some
great shots of comet PanSTARRS.
My wife ended up attempting the marathon and got 65 out of the first 67 before she ran out of objects and went to bed.  She awoke at 4am but couldn't work up the effort to get out of the toasty warm bed and go outside to finish the marathon - a decision she said she now regrets.  I continued to work the sky shooting H-Alpha data early and LRGB data late in the night.  While the laptop was busy doing that, I spent the evening with my 15" Obsession attempting to become a better visual observer.  One of my successes with the imaging game has been that I've reached a point where the rig runs itself once it's all setup.  This has afforded me the luxury of getting back to some visual observing which was my first love affair with the sky.
It was a great trip overall and provided some much needed adventure, astronomy and relaxation.  I returned to work ready to get after it all over again.  Every trip to the desert leaves me feeling better about everything there is in life by the time that it's over with.  Check back soon for images and processing notes from the data that was collected during my outing.