What I use for visual observing:
This is my dark site scope, and the scope that I use for most ‘serious’ observing. We bought it secondhand from a local astronomer, in very good condition. I’ve gone as deep as a g’magnitude 16.6 galaxy with this scope! (The galaxy was LEDA 86788, in the background of Hickson 44.) It’s equipped with a Telrad and an 8×50 correct-image finder scope. I don’t use the illuminated reticle on the finder scope, as it was broken when I got it and I find no difficulty with centering the field without it. Similarly, the scope came with a fan on the back of the mirror cell, but I never use it.
I used to let the telescope acclimate for 45min-1hr before observing, and didn’t notice any detrimental effects from tube currents while observing. (It helps that where I live, the nighttime temperature is often close to or slightly above room temperature.) “And then, the tube currents attacked.” Well, I might have invited them in, because in 2018 I decided it would be a smart thing to flock the inside of the tube with black velvet. The black velvet absorbs light admirably! It also insulates heat admirably. Now, images are a blurry, wavy mess for hours after dark unless I speed cooling along with a hairdryer on cool and/or a fan. I’m planning to take the flocking out and redo it (this time just the most valuable areas instead of the whole tube), but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
The stiction in the base is a dream for me, especially compared to the XT8! One of my favorite things about the scope is that the stiction is adjustable, with knobs for both the altitude and azimuth. When loose, the base will spin in circles from just a small push; turning the azimuth knob in the base tightens the center bolt, pushing the rocker box down onto the ground board and applying artifical load to increase the friction. This is not how you’re supposed to do it– I’m well aware that great stiction is supposed to only originate from a dreamy combination of Teflon and Formica and a little bit of black magic– but you know what, it works for me. (Others who use my telescope invariably say something to the effect of “I’m scared to touch it, it moves funny”, though.) I plan to rebuild the base someday in the far future, primarily to reduce weight, but I suppose I’ll also attempt the dark ritual of redoing the bearings à la Kriege and Berry. Perhaps the stiction gods shall smile down upon me.
Orion XT8 Classic
My grandmother bought this scope for me in November of 2014. I was 13 years old, and this was my first ‘real’ telescope. The XT8 is a really excellent scope, and one I would recommend to any beginners. I spent many nights out in the backyard with it, hunting down star clusters and other objects picked from the pages of Tirion’s SkyAtlas.
The XT8 remained my main backyard scope even after I got my Z12, though before the 12″ went to live at the dark sky site I did break it out occasionally on nights when I needed high resolution or a tad more light-gathering in the backyard. 4 times out of 5, the XT8 was my go-to (not literally) yard scope. There’s just no beating the ease of setup. Now, it carries the full duties of both backyard observing and outreach.
During a magnitude test one night under very bad transparency Bortle 4 skies (6.5 ZLM at the time), I was able to see a B mag 15.6 galaxy (CGCG 199-25). In my Bortle 9 backyard, it’s just enough aperture to see some of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Cluster.
The XT8 was originally equipped with a Telrad, but unfortunately the Telrad was claimed by a bad case of unnoticed battery corrosion in early 2018. It’s since been replaced with a Rigel Quikfinder which I had on hand, which I don’t like nearly as much as a Telrad, but it is much better than trying to sight down the tube at least. I have never used a magnifying finder on the XT8. While a magnifying finder is convenient, and I like the one on the 12″ very much, the Telrad in conjunction with very good charts (SkyTools) is sufficient to find just about anything with this scope.
The one great flaw of the XT8 is the tremendous amount of stiction, especially in azimuth. In 2017, I was able to mitigate some of the stiction in the base by adding extra washers to the center bolt between the particleboard layers, and while it was still not as smooth as the Z12, it improved a lot. Before, using anything even slightly high powered was a bit of a pain due to the juddering of the view, and very high powers were impossible to track. After the fix I could track fairly easily with a 6mm eyepiece + barlow (7.5 arcminute FOV, 400x).
While on gate duty at the Texas Star Party in 2018, a surprise thunderstorm developed and swept through, dousing the ranch in torrential rain. I had plenty of time watching the storm approach in which to think of whether my setup back on the upper field was safe, and my conclusion was that it should probably be fine- but I had forgotten about the base of the XT8 sitting out, exposed. Though I toweled it off the instant I got back to the upper field, as many would have predicted, the particleboard swelled. I’d always heard of “particleboard swelling” and assumed it would be quite noticeable, busting the laminate and arcing the composite, but it was invisible cosmetically and just applied enough pressure to the bearings that azimuth motion became virtually impossible. When I got home, I tried rubbing plain bar soap on the teflon bearings and tracks in both altitude and azimuth, and it worked- a bit too well, as suddenly the scope would sag under the weight of an Ethos eyepiece. So I washed some of the soap off the altitude bearings, and it’s at least functional again. I’m still able to track at 400x, though the stiction is still nowhere as nice as my 12″.
The original handle was made of fairly cheap plastic, and the hardware would work its way out and leave the handle dangling. The screws were replaced several times before the handle itself finally broke. My step-grandpa took notice while we were staying with him in 2017, and generously made me a new, very solid and sturdy handle out of solid PVC that’s worked like a charm.
Homemade Parallelogram Binocular Mount
I built this mount with my step-grandpa, out of family heirloom walnut wood from a tree my step-grandpa’s brother felled on his land! It uses a rock-solid awesome surveyor’s tripod that my step-grandpa gave me. I really enjoy using it in conjunction with my 15x70s to browse the sky; it’s so easy to sweep up targets (and I think it’s darn near the ideal setup for speedrunning a Messier Marathon).
The mount’s design is based off of my friend’s homemade parallelogram mount, which he kindly let me borrow to study. I made a couple of improvements– a larger box at the bottom so it’s easier to reach your hand in there when attaching it to the tripod, a longer bino head to accommodate my larger binoculars, and a little Teflon pad / wooden block under the binocular adapter to act as a second azimuth bearing: that way I could track an object while reclined in a gravity chair without having to get up and move the mount every five minutes.
The extra azimuth pad was good in theory, but I made a mistake. That is, I didn’t really consider the balance point of the binoculars like I should have. Those big old heavy lenses on my 15x70s move the COG way up near the front, so that when the binoculars are attached near the back, they are severely front-heavy… point that front-heavy bino assembly up into the sky resting on a slippery pad of Teflon, and what do you get? A 5.5-pound binocular to the face, that’s what! It didn’t take me long to figure out that I needed to tighten the bino attachment point as much as I possibly could until there was no way it would go for a slip-n-whirl. As a consequence, the extra azimuth bearing has limited functionality. Thankfully, that’s not a very noticeable issue, in my experience.
What is more noticeable is the altitude bearing. The binoculars are so heavy that when attached to the mount, they pull down on the bino head and cause the altitude joint to separate at the top, and pinch at the bottom. Like a sandwich, held vertical and gripped from the bottom edge, lettuce fanning out at the top– not what I want for my precision bino mount! It functions, but in order to mostly prevent the spreading of the altitude bearing layers, I have to overtighten the connection bolt, making the joint sticky. I have a feeling that in order to prevent long-term damage to the mount, I’ll need to figure out a solution to this one.
Now that I’ve picked all the nits, let me state again that I really love this mount! It makes all the difference when using my 15x70s, and enables me to share my fabulous bino views with my friends and family. And as my first piece of precision woodworking, I’m proud of it!
These binos are a dream! I became a wide-field addict after I got these, and I enjoy picking up the semi-challenging objects that my friends go after in their big dobs in my binos and inviting them over for a peek! 😉
The Pacman Nebula (NGC 281) is just as easily visible in these binoculars as it is in my 12″, and I was able to spot the magnitude ~13.5 galaxies NGC 5905 and 5908 at TSP 2019. The sharpness is impressive, and I am able to split double stars down to 10.3″ and spot the 4 brightest components of the Trapezium. And aesthetically, these binos have probably given me the most gorgeous views I’ve ever had! Under a dark sky, the Milky Way is so rife with dark structure, and the amount of clusters and nebulae visible is overwhelming– it feels as though you can never hope to log them all. After viewing with the bright exit pupils, binovision, and über-crisp stars of these binos, going back to my 12″ at 100 power seems dark, noisy, blurry, and just plain hard to look through.
I almost always use these binoculars on my homemade parallelogram mount; they are very heavy and (like most binoculars) the view is significantly degraded when used handheld compared to mounted.
I have published an observing report of the first night that I used these binoculars after building my homemade parallelogram mount, and it can be read here. Highlights of that night included logging 16 galaxies in the Virgo Cluster in 37 minutes and making a highly detailed sketch of NGC 6633, my favorite NGC star cluster! Check out the observing report to see the sketch and logs.
What I use for spectrography:
I bought my Star Analyzer in early 2017 with the intention of using it on the front of my (mom’s) DSLR; with an Astrovid 2000 video camera that was given to me; and visually with an eyepiece. The first two methods weren’t exactly successful because I didn’t go into it with any prior knowledge of astrophotography (…or a tripod, or a grating adapter), but I enjoyed using the grating visually to show off the bright spectra to anyone who would look!
One night in my backyard, I studied and sketched the spectrum of Sirius at high power through my 8″, and detected a surprising amount of spectral features. And I was able to faintly detect the spectrum of 3C 273 in my 12″ at Texas Star Party 2018!
After I taught myself how to do astrophotography with my DSLR in 2018, I decided to try again with the Star Analyzer. After the planned data collection at the spectrography workshop SMSW-II in February 2019 was rained out, I hosted an impromptu starparty on the hotel grounds, and recorded my first successful spectra of several bright stars with my Star Analyzer perched on top of the lens of my DSLR via a makeshift coffee cup adapter! Tom Field (who sells the Star Analyzers and develops RSpec) was present, and very kindly offered to send me a proper adapter for the grating.
When I returned home from SMSW-II, I recorded the spectrum of the magnitude-7ish Wolf-Rayet star EZ CMa over several nights, which was right near the limit of detection for my old DSLR when using a 50mm lens and stacking 20 minutes of exposures.
Lately I’ve been using the Star Analyzer in conjunction with my ASI178MM on my XT8, which even though untracked lets me reach magnitude 7 in under one second! By drift-scanning I can record several minutes of exposures on 10-15 stars, stack each spectrum, and process in RSpec. This is my preferred method of recording spectra because I can reach a great signal-to-noise ratio in a fraction of the time that it takes with a DSLR!
RSpec is the only software I can recommend for amateur spectrography, and I resisted getting it for a long time. It has a high price tag, and I was highly suspicious of it– it’s very slick, very highly marketed, and looks too simple. Surely a free alternative like Visual Spec or ISIS is more powerful and better to learn, right? …..No! Don’t make the same mistake I did!
The thing is, spectrography should be simple. You don’t want to adulterate the data. No stretching, no sharpening, just removing the instrumental biases and showing the data as it is. That means calibrating the frames (darks, flats, bias), stacking the spectrum, deroatating/deslanting (if necessary), calibrating the wavelength, and calibrating the spectral response (for continuum) or normalizing the curve (for relative spectral line intensities). RSpec lets you do all of this easily, and has a ton of little tools to make your life easier along the way.
Did I mention that it’s easy to use?? After they trained us on “drop-and-give-me-twenty-IN-FRENCH” ISIS in the spectrography workshop SMSW-II, RSpec wasn’t a breath of fresh air, it was a glacier in the Sahara. (Hey, maybe that would stop all that dust from blowing over to Texas.) I concede that ISIS might be necessary for very high resolution slit spectrography, as that’s what it’s aimed at– and boy, do I not envy those poor folks. I’m staying away from ISIS ever since it magic’d away some of the Helium spectral lines in my copy of the practice data, leaving the noise profile intact. It took the combined efforts of the organizers of the workshop for over 30 minutes and a total wipe and reinstall to fix.
One day, when I have more familiarity with the software, I might write a longer review and/or guide. In the meantime, I don’t really feel the need to– because RSpec has some of the best documentation that I’ve ever encountered for a software (right on par with Adobe!). If you’re considering starting low-resolution spectrography, get RSpec; and if you don’t believe me, go sit down and watch the dang videos!
What I use for astrophotography:
Omegon MiniTrack LX2
This. Thing. Is. Amazing.
It’s a star tracker that, with one twist of a knob, can easily carry a DSLR and lens for an hour without any power cord, batteries, or electricity whatsoever. The insides are entirely clockwork. It is, in essence, a glorified egg timer. It even rings a little bell after an hour is up! It’s dead simple to operate, lightweight, and portable, and did I mention it doesn’t need batteries? This glorified egg timer thoroughly delights the out-of-the-box engineer inside of me! Oh yeah, and it costs less than half as much as the ‘standard’ recommended beginner DSLR astrophotography mount (the Star Adventurer)!
The maximum exposure possible with the mount is stated to be 100 / (focal length of your lens) in minutes, and I find that to be pretty accurate. I set this sucker up at TSP 2019 with my ASI178MM + Samyang 135mm f/2 perched on top (an effective focal length of ~625mm!!!), and was able to shoot 10 second subs of Markarian’s Chain with only a rough polar alignment! There wasn’t any trailing, but with that tiny FOV there was noticeable periodic error, which combined with the rough polar alignment meant that my target eventually drifted out of frame. Still, I’m pretty darn happy with this mount, and I’ve been recommending it to all the astrophotography newbies that I can!
Things to know before you buy:
- The optional ballhead is of quite good quality, though you have to really wrench it tight to keep it from slowly slipping when you’re pointing a massive telephoto lens straight up.
- It’s plenty for astrophotography with a regular DSLR, though without a right-angle bracket it has some noticeable blindspots in where the camera can point. If you use an ASI camera where the tripod thread is on the back, it can’t point anywhere below the celestial equator without a right angle bracket. (That’s a big problem in Texas!)
- To increase your track times with the LX2, you can purchase an optional polar finder bracket and a compatible polar scope. This has been reported to increase the maximum possible exposure time to 400 / (focal length of your lens) in minutes. Disclaimer, I have not used a polar bracket or polar finder myself yet.
- There is a new version, the MiniTrack LX3, which will begin shipping in August 2019. It has upgraded mechanics, and supposedly can track for longer without trailing, carry more weight, and comes with an optical polar scope by default to help you nail polar alignment. It costs $60 more than the LX2.
Oh yeah, and because I wondered before I bought it: the knob isn’t hard to turn at all. 🙂
I was given this camera in early 2019 for my 18th birthday, after I’d been eyeing it for a year. It’s tiny, sensitive, and I hear it’s extremely low noise for a camera– considering that it’s been running at 90+°F when I’ve used it this summer, I’ll just have to take their word for it! 🙂 Even at such high temps, what noise is there doesn’t bother me for what I’ve been using it for, which is short exposure spectrography. (I am considering draping it with an ice pack, though!)
The chip is tiny, as are the pixels, which is actually a plus in my eyes. When connected to my Samyang 135mm f/2, the field of view is right around 2° x 3° with an image scale of 3.66″/px, just perfect to frame Markarian’s chain.
On my 8″, the FOV is a mere 21′ x 14.4′, which makes framing a spectrum difficult with the extreme stiction in my base, so I prefer to use my 12″ if I have it at home.
This is technically my mom’s DSLR, and I’ve messed around with it on and off ever since I became interested in astronomy. (I have some treasured, highly out-of-focus, long exposure handheld photos of one of my first starparties taken with this camera.) It’s old for a camera, having come out in 2005, and very noisy and insensitive by modern standards, but it takes some really nice photos nonetheless.
The sensor in the 350D has nearly 9x the area of the ASI178MM, and fairly large pixels, so it yields a much wider FOV: 9.4° x 6.3° with a 135mm, and 25.6° x 16.9° with a 50mm — perfect for constellation wide fields.
I’m glad that I started out with something as old as this, because now I know that great results can be achieved even with a camera that currently goes for $50, and I can recommend it to others on a budget. Dark skies and processing skills matter so much more than the specs of your camera!
Yeah, the star of my collection! The “god lens”, as it is sometimes called, really is all that! Mine is not absolutely, 100% flawless at f/2 on the 350D, but only has a very slight elongation of stars in the very extreme corners of the field. It is essentially flat.
A 67.5mm f/2 refractor with essentially perfect stars –and it costs less than $500 new! Don’t you love economies of scale?
I am pretty convinced that a small-pixeled ZWO camera, Samyang 135mm, and Omegon MiniTrack is the ultimate portable setup for those on a budget– forget a small dedicated refractor. And these items of kit are so often overlooked, too!
This little lens is a well-kept secret that I’d like to spread to the world! It’s an old prime lens originally made for film SLR cameras in great quantities, and can regularly be found in good condition on Ebay for $30-$50. With the purchase of a cheap adapter, it can be used on modern cameras, where it gives good images for a fraction of the cost of a modern “nifty fifty”. What’s more, it was made to illuminate 35mm film, which means that it shows very little vignetting on the small chip of a common APS-C DSLR camera. It’s a full-frame lens!
Unlike the extremely odd Samyang 135mm f/2, this 50mm does not show pinpoint stars when wide open– at f/1.4, the stars are comically huge blurs of coma (which can make for a nice artistic effect in some situations). But when you stop it down two clicks to f/2.8, it gives nearly pinpoint stars across the frame; not bad at all compared to modern lenses which may need to be stopped down 3 or 4 stops before sharpening up.
These sharp, fast 50mm SLR prime lenses were not unique to Olympus– that just happens to be the one that I have. “Nifty Fifties” were, and are, all the rage. Chances are good that there are several other Ebay gems out there going under different names, but I haven’t tried any of them.
What I use for charts:
SkyTools 3 (Standard Edition)
I use MegaStar occasionally when even SkyTools’ deep database isn’t deep enough. One of the biggest draws for me is that it contains the Mitchell Anonymous Catalog, a catalog of galaxies discovered by a member of our local club, most faint enough to be a test in a 12″ (or fainter).
However, MegaStar’s interface is definitely much more clunky than SkyTools, so when I’m really trying to push it deep, I’ll use SkyTools to find the field first, then switch to MegaStar for a more detailed starchart.
(I also use SkyTools to get a DSS image, or (if I have no internet connection) use The RealSky overlay in MegaStar, because a photograph is often the best finder chart of all.)
Pocket Sky Atlas (Jumbo Edition)
While I prefer using SkyTools on a laptop, if I had to choose a paper chart, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas would be the one. The wide overview and uncluttered design makes it good for starhopping, and it shows a large amount of objects. If I didn’t have SkyTools, I would use this for most of my observing. As it is, I use it only once in a blue moon.
What I used to use, but don’t use anymore
This is the atlas I used for my first two years of observing. It’s detailed, but it has nowhere near the amount of detail to show an eyepiece field of view. I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to use, and I would heavily discourage any new astronomer from considering it. It will be very difficult for even an experienced astronomer to use to push the limits of what’s visible, as it doesn’t go nearly deep enough; though it is sufficient for finding brighter objects, if clumsy. (For my first two years of observing, “pushing the limit of what’s visible” meant the Whirlpool Galaxy in my 8″ telescope from a light polluted backyard, so the SkyAtlas saw most of its use tracking down star clusters.)
I also have the SkyAtlas 2000.0 Companion, which is nifty for finding out more about the object you’re looking at, or planning out an observing list. The Companion has a lot of information on each object such as magnitude and chart number, plus a short description. Think of it as like a deep-sky dictionary. However, if you are considering a book for that purpose I would instead recommend the Night Sky Observer’s Guide, a 4-volume set filled with sketches and descriptions of thousands of deep sky objects with different sized telescopes. The Night Sky Observer’s Guide has higher quality descriptions, and also contains the same type of data as the SkyAtlas 2000.0 Companion (except for the SkyAtlas 2000 chart number, for obvious reasons).
Simmons 10×50 “Focus Free”
These binoculars used to make it into my bag any time any observing might take place, be it backyard, dark site, outreach, or travel. I didn’t do extremely ‘serious’ observing with them- but the point of binoculars is to have fun, and these were very fun.
The image seems nice and crisp, and they have a wide field of view. When stabilized on a tripod, or even lashed to a railing, you can see much, much deeper than when handheld! With the binoculars mounted on a tripod, I was able to see stars as deep as mag 8.5 (maybe 9, but my sketch wasn’t clear enough to certain) in an extremely light polluted, Bortle-9 zone, with lots of ambient light, and with the moon up… And with the binoculars stabilized, and keeping the moon centered in the field of view, it’s amazing the amount of detail you can see.
I used to use a pair of 7x35s as well for the larger true field of view, until I stopped to compare them and realized that due to the wide apparent field of view of the 10x50s, the true field of view is almost exactly the same. Mellotte 111 just about fits into the FOV of both.
Unfortunately, these Simmons 10x50s turned out to be much darker than they should be once I got a chance to compare them to a friend’s 10x50s– I honestly wonder if mine have built-in polarizing filters, given that they were originally intended for daytime use and they were my grandma’s for years before they became mine. They also lost collimation not too long after I got my 15x70s, and began to show double images. For this reason, I no longer use them for observing. There are better starter 10x50s out there, but despite their flaws, they gave me some good views while they lasted.