This area of Southern New Mexico enjoys a rich cultural history, both American Indian and Hispanic. The annual “Turn back the Sun” winter solstice celebration was held on Dec 7 at Leasburg Dam State Park, the home of the Leasburg Observatory which is operated by the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces. As an active member of the club and the director of the observatory I am responsible for overseeing the general operations and activities at the observatory. This consists mainly of running the monthly outreach session which we staff regularly during the year on the Saturday closest to the last quarter Moon. We typically see 20-50 visitors, probably more in the Summer when the area becomes home to many campers . Occasionally scout troops or students from area schools and colleges will visit. This month’s timing was an exception because of the solstice event, held earlier in the month so there was a very bright waxing gibbous moon. The Solstice celebration took several hours (see above news clipping) and was highlighted by campfire storytelling courtesy of one of the park rangers who is a native of the area. Following this the attendees made their way to the observatory where the Moon was the “star” of the evening. High thin clouds and the moon’s brightness precluded viewing of deep space objects but we don’t often get the chance to look at the moon with a telescope of this size. The 20 or so visitors (as well as myself and one other club member who had stopped by to assist) were definitely awestruck by the incredible detail seen in the lunar landscape! One of the visitors took some pictures of the moon through the eyepiece with her iPhone. She was super excited and that was great to see. More on the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces and its activities can be found here.
The Leasburg Observatory at Leasburg Dam State Park in Radium Springs, NM is a roll-off which houses a 16″ Meade Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. The observatory construction was a joint project between the park and the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces. It was completed around 2012 or so. The park funded the construction with the stipulation that the club would host outreach activities on a regular basis. The telescope was donated to the club by New Mexico State University. Equally as impressive as the lunar landscape this night, was the sunset!
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The “Advanced Imaging Conference” is a biannual meeting held in San Jose California and is dedicated to astroimaging enthusiasts from around the world. It is probably the premier meeting of it’s kind and was started in 2004 by some of the most well known astroimagers. I attended the recent meeting last month and had not been to one prior to this since about 10 years ago! There were well over 200 attendees at the conference this year. A lot has changed. For one thing, many more people are doing this now and doing it very well. Equipment has become more accessible and less costly. Changes in technology continue to evolve as you would expect. My 4 takeaways from this conference:
- Transition from ccd to cmos camera sensors (for astronomy). This is a technological shift that seems to be driven right now mostly by economics rather than any quality improvement objective for the astroimaging community, so the hope is that over time the developers will figure out how to optimize these for astronomy. Basically you have these 2 types of sensors, CCDs or charged coupled devices and CMOS or “complementary metal oxide semiconductor”. Both sensors convert light into electrons but do it in different ways. Both sensors have been around for awhile now. The CMOS sensors are found in your typical digital camera, smart phone etc. In a ccd sensor the charge is transported across the chip and read at one corner of the array. An analog to digital converter then converts each pixel’s value to digital. In CMOS sensors transistors at each pixel amplify and move the charge with more “traditional” wiring. Each pixel can be read individually so there is more flexibility there but what that means for us going forward I do not know. At this time what I do know is this: CCD sensors create high quality, low noise images. CMOS sensors at least right now are noisier. Because of the transistors next to each pixel in the CMOS the light is hitting those and those photons will be lost resulting in less light sensitivity. The positives on CMOS side to me appear to be economic right now. They consume minimal power compared to CCDs and can be manufactured on any standard silicon production line so are very cheap to produce. Since the astronomy community is a relatively tiny niche market, there is really no incentive to continue to produce the more costly CCDs and so they are gradually being phased out.
- Direct drive telescope mounts. These are very interesting because they employ motors which are connected directly to the load without any intervening gears, worms or any other mechanical transmission elements. This eliminates things like periodic error which occurs in a gear driven motor. Supposedly they are way more accurate than anything with gears. I spoke to some folks using these who claim the tracking, which is the main challenge when viewing/ imaging astronomical objects in space, is flawless and obviates the need for any guiding which we typically do now. In other words now we have to use a star away from the target to focus on and the mount adjusts during your exposure to keep that star centered. These new gearless mounts may not require that.
- “System on a chip”. Typically when we are imaging we have a ton of equipment we need to operate and traditionally we have been using laptops or desktops to do this. We connect a thousand devices to the usb ports and have to navigate those. Smart folks have come to realize that you don’t need cumbersome Windows based computers just to run astronomical equipment. You can have tiny motherboards such as the Raspberry Pi or similar that can be mounted on your imaging platform and not have to deal with the heavy hardware. No more hassles with regular system updates or a million processes running in the background to eat up memory and interfere with the astronomical activities. I think this was the coolest thing I saw at AIC and potentially the most beneficial. I mean the thought of ditching Windows and the big hardware I have to leave on all the time in the warm room is very compelling! This is probably the one area I am going to pursue!
- I got the sense from the attendees I spoke to that many are leary of permanent observatory set-ups nowadays and either are going portable or renting telescope time online. Global weather is constantly changing, light pollution increasing and other factors we cannot anticipate come into play. A portable setup enables you to travel to any site potentially where seeing and darkness are optimal. Many more online telescope rental sites have been established where you can use top of the line equipment and have access to the best skies on Earth!
New direct drive mount from Software Bisque which is designed for 400 pound loads!
Vendor area at the recent AIC meeting.
Anyway those are my take home points from the recent AIC meeting!
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