The Astronomical Society of Las Cruces has a rich tradition of education and public outreach. The club was founded by Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto as many of you know. Many outreach activities have continued over the years. One of these is the monthly observing at Leasburg Dam State Park in Radium Springs, NM. Years before I became a member the Park Service and the ASLC got together to build an observatory at Leasburg. New Mexico State University donated a used Meade 16 inch scope and the club also installed a video system for the smaller William Optics 110 ED scope. Shortly after I arrived in New Mexico I joined the ASLC and became the observatory director. Every month we open the observatory to the public. This is a great opportunity for people of all ages to look through a large telescope. I think astronomy is a fantastic way to get people interested in science and this is important for all of us. Science encourages independent thinking, looking at things objectively and drawing conclusions from what you observe and not from what other people tell you. I think society is generally healthier as a result. I also enjoy the teaching aspect of it and seeing people’s amazement as they look at the rings of Saturn and other objects. Several folks don’t believe what they are seeing is real! It’s a welcome break from the self absorbing activities such as astroimaging. Trying to explain how the universe works to the general public forces you to understand it better!Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old you don’t understand it yourself”
At any rate this last outing was one of the best I can remember. In the Summer , the night time astronomy is preceded by live music from a local performer. It’s a popular spot as the weather is very favorable this time of year. We get mostly campers that come by but some people visiting and local residents also enjoy the event. The Milky way was in full bloom at the start of the night. Actually reminded me of what I see up at Orion’s Belt Observatory in Mayhill! Usually it’s not that crisp. Radium Springs is way better than Las Cruces but still maybe a Bortle 4 sky. Seeing was fantastic. We started with Saturn and I was able to go to our 20mm eyepiece from the 30 which is rare for the 16″! The Cassini was sharp and the hemispheric markings were well resolved. Next was the Lagoon nebula followed by M13 where in the 16 you can reach in there and grab every star. We finished up with a journey to Andromeda. Low surface brightness even in the 16 but you can see the dust lane in the foreground. Bigger crowd than usual today! Hopefully I can go next month.
The parked Meade 16 and refractor just about to get going. The observatory is a roll off .
I think here we’re looking at Andromeda. The warm room is to the right and there is a laptop on a desk in the back that controls the scope
Thanks for reading!
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