August 4th the Backyard Observatories crew completed their mission in a most efficient and professional manner! I highly recommend BYO for anyone considering one of these. Unfortunately I missed a couple of days due to my work schedule. In any event Orion’s Belt Observatory is now complete!- sort of. Next is connecting the data and electric, painting and setting up additional equipment for remote operation. First light with the 16″ is not expected to happen until next Spring but it possible we could have our 5″ refractor operational by the end of the year.
You can see the entire build at orionsbeltobservatory.com!
Entry door on the west wall. Roof opens to the north
East wall looking west
Inside the observatory. The 2 foot drop down panel is seen to the right. We had the roof insulated to prevent excessive heat build up in the summer
The warm room! We have a 4 foot window on each side to monitor the operations of each pier
Roof motor just outside the warm room
Inside the warm room. It’s about a 5 1/2 foot depth. Plenty of space!
Day 2 of the build was actually yesterday. Once the flooring is in, it goes pretty quickly except the crew got rained out. They are hoping to finish by week’s end
Bright sunny day to start off as the walls go up!
Entry door is on the west wall. This is where the walking trail takes you from the house.
The south wall has a 2 foot drop down to facilitate viewing of the precious southern deep sky objects! The wall height is 7 feet. I can adjust the pier height accordingly. I kind of got tired of ducking every time I go into the smaller structure I have in Las Cruces and I am over 6 feet tall myself
To the north is the warm room. The great thing about a roll off is you have the option if you make the structure big enough to have more than 1 pier. Since I will have 2 piers, I will also have 2 stations in the warm room. The weather is starting to turn for the worse. It is our “monsoon season” this month.
Floor detail showing the 2 piers.
Detail of the framing inside the structure
Two things really surprised me last night while I am spending the weekend up here on Mintaka Hill watching the observatory build. A while back I purchased a used Tak FS102 refractor basically for visual use up here in the dark sky. The Tak FS is a fluorite doublet, since discontinued by Takahashi in favor of the TOA and TSA triplet optics mainly for the supposed imaging advantage, the perfect color correction. Anyway the older Taks have a superb reputation and I can’t tell you how amazing the views are through this thing. However, as an imager by nature, I just had to see what the images were like. Now I am used to big optics with self guiding dedicated ccd cameras. This is completely new to me, which is just one of the things so great about this hobby in that you can discover new things all the time…even if it’s not dark matter! I had also acquired in the past a Celestron AVX equatorial mount also for the purpose of goto visual observing. But wait a minute! There is a “guide port” on the mount. So now we have a scope and a mount that can guide. I looked into this at length and of course there is a “Celestron VX” Yahoo group. It turns out that yes you can guide! And you don’t even need to connect the mount to your computer to do it! So next thing was to figure out what to use. This set up was not going to hold much weight so next thing I needed was a guide scope and a lightweight guider. I decided to go with a lodestar guide camera and a small 50mm scope compatible with my set up (shown below). With my Canon 60D which can easily reach focus on the longer FL Tak and a freeware guiding program called “PHD” I was able to test the new platform! I was blown away by how accurate the guiding was for only rough polar alignment. I’m still learning how to fine tune that on this mount. Perhaps more on that in another post. Anyway you be the judge. The stars are not perfect. They may not even be in the best focus since I had to do that on the fly. But I think you can agree that this is going to be a worthwhile activity going forward! So the 2 things I learned that surprised me:
- The Tak FS102 CAN take very good images. Also the field is pretty flat.
- You can guide accurately with the Celestron AVX with no planetarium program and no direct connection from the mount to the PC!
Portable visual/ imaging set up. Tak FS 102 on a Celestron AVX. 50mm guidescope is mounted on the Tak as you can see. How guiding works: Connect your dslr as you would normally to your computer. Attach the guide camera to the guidescope. You should have 2 cables with your guide camera. One cable is an ethernet like cable that connects directly to the guide port on the mount. The other is a usb cable that connects to your computer. Download the freeware program “PHD guiding” and follow the instructions. When asked to select your guiding configuration, choose “on-camera” which means the camera is connected to the mount. That’s totally it!
This is a completely raw unprocessed image of our good friend in the Milky Way, the Lagoon Nebula. 4 minute exposure using the set up described above. This was with very rough polar alignment. I was within about 20-25 arc minutes of the pole in both altitude and azimuth!
The BYO (Backyard Observatories) crew finally arrives and construction starts on Orion’s Belt Observatory! Completion of the structure is expected in a week. Day 1 went fine. No disasters. The foundation was a little off level to the north and west so they had to put shims but otherwise no issues.
The crew finally arrives! Construction begins. View to the West
Completion of subflooring and connecting the conduit from the piers to the electrical panel and warm room
Flooring is done. It appears to be pretty level with the piers. One data conduit per pier enters the warm room
Day one is in the books with floor done and 2 walls
A successful day 1! View to the north from Alnitak Trail
Probably everyone who visits a dark sky site with any regularity has the urge to take “that shot” of the southern Milky Way. With spectacular weather up here for the 4th that’s exactly what I did at about 1 AM when the Milky Way was just past meridian. So while I don’t have the observatory up and running yet, we have a large deck where I can set up a camera and tripod, and with the aid of the Polarie Star Tracker (Vixen Optics) I took 24 frames each 3 minutes long. The Polarie device is basically a small synchronous motor, battery powered with 2 AA batteries, that you can screw your camera onto and it will allow time exposures of the sky. There is a small site hole in the body of it to site on Polaris. The tracking is decent. I used a Canon 60D modified with a 10-18mm zoom set at 10.
Southern Milky Way from Mayhill NM. Single raw image 3 minutes. Canon 60D, 10-18mm lens set at 10, 1600 ISO, Polarie Star Tracker. About 1 AM Mountain Daylight Time
Orion’s Belt or the Belt of Orion, also known as the Three Kings or Three Sisters, is an asterism in the constellation Orion. It consists of the three bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Since we are located on Orion’s Belt, it was agreed to so name the observatory as mentioned in an earlier post. I decided since then to name the hill the observatory will rest on Mintaka Hill. The trail leading up to it will be named Alnitak Trail.
Astronomers living quarters. This was actually the first structure to arrive on the site. The deck was completed shortly afterward. From the deck there are great views from east to west looking south.
This is ‘Alnitak Trail’ which runs about 200 feet to the observatory from the house
The cement piers are done! I had to test the fit of the Bisque pier on the cement. The bolts all fit great and the steel base sits flat on the cement. There is a 3 foot cement pier for the bigger scope and 2 foot for lower payloads, e.g. smaller refractor, astrograph etc. Now it looks like the cement sits very high but remember the the actual floor of the observatory is at the same level as the top of the cement piers. There are 2 conduits embedded in each pier. One for electric and 1 for data. The foundation is now complete and we are waiting for BYO to come out and finish the structure
There is a trench that must be dug to run both electric and data from the house to the observatory
Nearly completed site work surrounding the observatory. There is more of this than you might think necessary to control drainage. There is gravel placed around the observtory and beyond that grading of the terrain to divert water around the structure. There is not a lot of rain here but they do get some precipitation and it often comes in large bursts. This is a view looking west from the edge of the clearing. You can see the foundation in the distance
“Practice staring at the Milky Way if you want to gain some understanding of its structure”, J Robert Oppenheimer. (Astronomy Magazine July 2016 p.51 Richard Wilds author)
Sound advice from the first director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory! The same advice he gave to Russian born astrophysicist Sergei Gaposchkin, who spent his free time drawing the entire Milky Way in ink from his viewing site at Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia in the late 50’s! So I decided, now that I had a dark sky viewing site I would do the same, armed with a reproduced representation of the Milky Way, that was created by Dr Gaposchkin, published by Astronomy Magazine showing the details of the Southern Milky Way with all the dark nebulosity sweeps and curves. I encourage everyone to read this excellent article by Richard Wilds in the July issue of Astronomy. Anyway from my dark sky viewing site in Mayhill NM at Mintaka Hill, I can see the Milky way all the way to the horizon. We’re a Bortle 2 sky on a scale of 1 to 9. It’s very dark. Not too many areas like this certainly in the continental US. It’s a spectacle you cannot get tired of. Even without a telescope or anything other than my eye, every time I have a chance to get outside up here I make a point of doing so. Last night at around 1:30 the Milky Way was directly overhead. We are obviously still in the Northern Hemisphere so we can see down to just below Sagittarius into the constellation Lupus. I had always known that Sagittarius was the direction of the “center of the galaxy” and I have been able to see fairly dense star clouds in the area at other sites such as my home 2 hours from here in Las Cruces, NM but nothing that really looked like an actual galaxy center structurally, until now. After about 15 minutes of dark adaptation I began to notice a distinct nebulosity extending from Sagittarius and seeming to wrap around the head of Scorpius. The width of this “bulge” was about twice that of the main Milky Way band. Inside of the bulge was an area consisting of smaller streaks and waves of dark patches, obviously dust. AHA! The Central Bulge of the Milky Way is discovered! Honestly it is like being transported in a space ship right into the heart of any edge on galaxy you may have observed, right next to the galaxy’s core! So check it out the next time you have a chance to observe in a dark site..and take Astronomy July issue page 51 with you. Thanks for reading!
Illustration of what this area looks like from up in Mayhill NM. Reproduced from the application Stellarium and stretched in Photoshop to recreate as closely as possible what is seen with the naked eye. The edge on view of our galaxy’s core extends from the bottom of the teapot in Sagittarius and extends all the way past Antares which is a great landmark visually. Antares is in the constellation Scorpius (actually more correct than “Scorpio”, and typo in Sagittarius, sorry!) That constellation always reminds me of a lawn chair. Antares is at the foot of the chair. “CB” or the Central Bulge as it is referred to in drawings is at the head of the chair! The width of this structure was much greater than I realized! Note Mars and Saturn which are really bright now.