Equipment

Equipment has evolved over the years. It started off, like many, with a 60mm Tasco refractor on a rickety wooden tripod. Seeing the belts on Jupiter and the rings on Saturn (“It really does have rings!”) was enough to get hooked. A couple years later I used paper route money to buy an 8″ Odyssey Newtonian reflector on a Dobsonian mount from Coulter Optical. Many nights were spent in the driveway hopping from one object to another with the aid of a Telrad finder. It didn’t take long before I tried putting a 35mm camera (film) in place of the eyepiece to take photos of the moon. And then eyepiece projection for Saturn and Jupiter (none of which really turned out). Aperture fever then set in and I discovered how credit cards are not meant to be used by buying a Meade 16″ Newtonian Starfinder on an equatorial mount. This was followed a few years later by a Meade 8″ LX50 SCT on a wedge and tripod. Night after night was spent using these for visual, and also trying to make photography work but it never quite happened. This was long before the days of Google when you had to either know someone or find it in the library. College, then work, then starting a family took precedence and the telescopes were put away with only an occasional use for some planetary observing during an opposition.

In 2016 I started reading about stacking and processing software. I put my new DSLR camera onto the LX50 and the photos were light years beyond anything I had managed with B&W 35mm film in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I started reading more and trying the new techniques of the digital age on the usual “easy” targets like the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Orion Nebula. Although the first attempts were feeble compared to the masters, it was a huge step up from anything I had done before and I was seeing progress every time I took the scope outside. Over the next couple years I’ve put together a modest setup. Although still firmly in a “budget” area by the standards of many who have poured tens of thousands of dollars into this hobby, it is allowing me to progress, learn, try different things, and see substantial progress each year. The current inventory consists of:

  • Mount – Orion Atlas Pro
  • Telescopes
    • The 8″ Meade LX50 SCT deforked and put onto a Losmandy rail with a Moonlite 2.5″ focuser.
    • An AstroTech AT130EDT refractor on a Losmandy rail with a Moonlite 2.5″ focuser.
    • The 8″ Odyssey and the 16″ Starfinder are patiently waiting their turns to see light again. The Odyssey has been used as a quick setup with the kids occasionally. The 16″ is planned to be tried for some planetary next year. The mount predates the GoTo and computer controlled era. The declination motor no longer works although the RA motor does. A long-term project is to replace its motors and control it with an Arduino.
  • Cameras
    • ASI1600MM-Cool with a set of AstroDon Series-E LRGB filters and a set of Baader Ha/OIII/SII filters.
    • ZWO Off-Axis Guider
    • ASI120MM-Mini as a guide camera
    • Orion Starshoot Autoguider. Recently removed from the OAG and replaced by the ASI120MM-Mini. Now being used with a 50mm guidescope to do Polar Alignment with SharpCap.
    • ASI224MC for planetary imaging with a 2x barlow
  • Software
    • PixInsight and StarTools for image calibration and processing. Primarily PixInsight at the moment.
    • GIMP for occasional color enhancements or image annotation
    • AutoStakkert3 for planetary stacking
    • Registax-6 for planetary image processing
    • Sequence Generator Pro for image acquisition
      • AstroPhotography Tool and BackyardEOS previously used for image acquisition
    • PHD2 for guiding
    • FireCapture for planetary
    • SharpCap for polar alignment
  • Computers
    • Inexpensive HP laptop with Windows 10 for telescope control and image acquisition. This sits on a table outside next to the telescope.
    • MacBook Pro laptop for image processing and to remote into the HP laptop via VNC.

Imaging has been done almost exclusively from the backyard. I’ve set up a 12v battery with enough Anderson-Pole and cigarette lighter ports to run everything, and have run a few nights in the backyard on the battery to debug the setup. But realistically, with kids in high school and middle school as well as working full-time, time is a premium. Although the skies in the Baltimore/Washington area are lousy from a light pollution standpoint, spending clear nights driving a couple hours and spending half the night there is simply not in the cards. But setting everything up in the backyard and letting it run mostly unattended is workable. Getting all of the hardware and software to talk with each other fairly reliably actually turned out to be interesting, a bit of fun, and rewarding. Things have come a long ways since the days of setting up that 60mm Tasco on its rickety tripod!