Nebraska Star Party 2015

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of being the main speaker for this years Nebraska Star Party. Held annually at the Merritt Reservoir near Valentine Nebraska, this years party boasted nearly 300 attendees spread over a spacious set of fields near the lake. One day of talks was held on Wednesday at the Valentine High School. I did a presentation to the kids program about astrophotography and it was a blast. The kids were very enthusiastic and inquisitive, with many of them being better versed in astronomy and photography than their parents!

NSP is spread over a very generous field.

NSP is spread over a very generous field.

The adult program was also on astrophotography, but aimed at a more general audience I focused on my own journey and what it was like to have the “imaging bug”. I tried to make the program as light toned as possible, and aimed at making uninvolved spouses understand their husband or wives late night obsession with the camera and the night sky. I received a lot of positive feedback afterwards so I think I had the mix just about right.

Of course in the middle of all this was the news about Pluto. The audience in the auditorium watched the NASA new briefs and we skyped with science writer Carolyn Collins Petersen, who along with her husband Mark are friends of mine. They were attending the news briefings and reporting on the events more or less live.

Dinner Time at the Tent

Dinner Time at the Tent

Every star party I attend is different. There were no vendors (surprising for an event this size), although I hear the late Jeff Goldstein from Astrogizmos was a regular in past years. One meal a day was provided in a common tent area, and had to be paid for in advance during registration. The meals were good, typical cook out faire, and the comradery was  great too and I’ve made some new friends I think.

There were many campers spread over the very spacious area, RVs, tents, and just little places where someone setup their equipment and would drive in and out. A short walk “down the way” you could park your car with the headlights pointing away from the field for a nighttime get a way. Along the lake itself were campers not associated with the star party, people fishing or enjoying the weekend on the lake with their boats. It wasn’t often, but vehicles with headlights could and did come by occasionally. There is no point in being super crazy here about white lights, but everyone associated with the star party was red light equipped and it was manageable. Also, to be beginner friendly (as it was explained to me), green lasers are not banned. For imagers, you can just stack with some sort of rejection algorithm and it’ll eliminate any stray green beams cutting through your image. For nightscape photography, it requires a little patience and willingness to share the sky from time to time.

Speaking of skies, they were quite nice. I opted to stay the entire week in the hopes of hitting at least one good weather opening. It was beautiful for skycape imaging and the naked eye Milky Way is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I was told by some of the regulars that the sky was really not at its best that week. I can only imagine what it must be like on a “good night”. There were some clouds always on the horizon it seemed the two nights I had some windows to shoot through. There was of course rain, and some stormy weather, but I did not see any of the apocalyptic plain ravaging storms I’ve heard tell about.

The Milk Way from the Nebraska Star Party

The Milk Way from the Nebraska Star Party

 

 

In addition to nightscape photography, I did for the first time ever fly out a complete imaging system with me. A Paramount MYT with an 80mm Sky Watcher Esprit refractor along with a Starlight Xpress CCD camera. I never got a full nights imaging in, but over two nights I collected enough data on the Western Veil Nebula to make a decent show of my efforts. I shot this also on my new experimental Raspberry Pi based imaging system I’ve been working on at Software Bisque. All control of the imaging system was done via an iPad. Ah, and there is no power on the field, so be ready to run everything on battery!

The Witches Broom, or Western Veil Nebula

The Witches Broom, or Western Veil Nebula

 

 

 

 

The organizers generously put me and my wife up for the week in the Merritt Trading Post cabins. These were very comfortable and fully furnished and equipped for a week away from home. You should know that these cabins are not a reasonable walking distance from the observing field, so if you do the cabin thing, plan to drive back and forth and be sure and park your car with the lights away from the field. Also, there is no Wifi (a blessing in disguise), but AT&T signal was surprisingly available… sometimes; not from the cabins, but from the observing field. Finally, when the literature says bring bug spray, they are NOT KIDDING. During the day it was not so bad, but once night fell, the mosquitoes were abundant and relentless.

Prairie Dogs abounded at the nearby Wildlife preserve.

Prairie Dogs abounded at the nearby wildlife preserve.

 

Valentine is about a 20 to 25 minute drive from the cabin area, which is about 10 minutes from the observing field. For the especially picky, there are hotels in Valentine and a few restaurants, some of which are quite good. The only chain food I recall seeing was a McDonalds (in a gas station), and a Pizza Hut. There are also two grocery stores for stocking up. The drive to Valentine is tedious after a couple of days back and forth, and I recommend the cabins near the trading post. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our stay there.

Do not get out of your car...

Do not get out of your car…

There are also a few sights to see nearby for day trips. Aside from the fact that you are staying already at a fishing and boating resort, the nearby Merritt Wildlife Preserve boasts a Prairie Dog Village, Bison, Elk, and all manner of plant life. You can also raft down the Niobrara river. Not to be missed either are some short hiking trails at nearby state parks with some nice water falls.

Nearby Smith Falls is a local favorite.

Nearby Smith Falls is a local favorite attraction.

It was a bit of a trip for me, and more driving time than flying (flew into Omaha from Orlando). I don’t think I can make this star party one of my annual regulars, but I do hope I can return from time to time. It is a nice haven away from Florida in the summer time when there is no imaging weather to be found in the hot humid rainy season here. The people there were also exceptionally friendly and welcoming. It was a great week and I even did a little visual observing through some of the big Dobsonian scopes in the “Valley of the Dobs”.

Highly recommended… just don’t forget the bug spray 😉

Richard

 

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Cherry Springs

Seventeen hours by car from where I live, just north of the center of the state of Pennsylvania near the New York state line, you’ll see on the Google Earth dark sky overlay an area surrounded by blue, which indicates where I live the best dark skies I can hope for. In the middle of this patch of blue however is a darker area, the coveted black spots where light pollution is nearly absent entirely. In the middle of this dark spot, this dark sky oasis in the state of Pennsylvania, is Cherry Springs State Park. It is here that two annual star parties are held, the Cherry Springs Star Party in late spring/early summer and the Black Forest star party held in the Fall. This place is perfect for star parties.

Best Camping Rules... Ever.

Best Camping Rules… Ever.

Accessible to a very large population in the North East, Cherry Springs is an astronomers haven and refuge. At the entrance to the park is a large display discussing the effects of light pollution, astronomy information news and events, and one of the best camping rules signs I’ve ever seen! My favorite parts:

  • Astronomers with telescopes only.
  • Overnight stays only.
  • Red lights after dark.
  • No vehicles after dark.
  • Big RV’s stay out of the middle so you don’t block the view of the sky!

I was pretty impressed with my own local state park’s (Kissimmee Prairie Preserve) catering to astronomers by having some dedicated pads away from lights and trees, but they have nothing on Cherry Springs. There are four empty observatories that you can rent as well as ample power on the field for astro equipment. This whole park is aimed squarely at the amateur astronomer community.

Astro-Campers Galore

Astro-Campers Galore

This years star party was pretty well attended, and is probably only surpassed by the Winter Star Party among the star parties I regularly attend (I have yet to make it to TSP… ). The weather this year was rainy unfortunately… you win some you loose some. Last year was very good and I got some astrophotography done, and even some wide field milky way shots.

The Milky Way from Cherry Springs

The Milky Way from Cherry Springs

I’m thinking seriously of returning for the Black Forest star party this Fall, as the summer star parties are short on hours of darkness. Only 4 1/2 hours of astronomical twilight for imaging, and three nights to get it all in. You can of course for a small fee show up early and just camp like “normal”.

There are also other things to do here of course. For other members of the family (or yourself if you are so inclined) there

Spring/Summer has plenty to offer at Cherry Springs.

Spring/Summer has plenty to offer at Cherry Springs.

are plenty of trails for hiking, and some other nearby state parks too. I’ve seen a black bear and some deer while in the area, and of course there is plenty of flora and fauna to explore and photograph. The nearby town of Coudersport has a few family dining type restaurants as well, and a selection of small motels and even some cabins you can rent just off the main road. It’s only about a 20 minute drive from the gate of the state park, and as a vendor it’s nice to have a place to get away and clean up each day.

You are truly in the middle of nowhere… AT&T cell service does not exist at the park or in Coudersport (I often think the AT&T coverage map is an inverted dark sky map actually…), but there is Verizon, and motels in Coudersport usually have WiFi service. Forget finding a Starbucks, but Fezzes diner is a great place for breakfast… but make sure you bring cash because they don’t take none of that fancy plastic stuff!

Richard

 

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Kitt Peak

Only a small portion of the instruments located at Kitt Peak

Only a small portion of the instruments located at Kitt Peak

Software Bisque was one of the commercial sponsors of a PixInsight workshop in Tucson Arizona recently and I went to show off our mounts, give demos, and give a little “word from our sponsor” talk. I flew in the Wednesday before hand and had the afternoon and evening Wednesday to do something fun. I decided to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory, which is about a 90 minute drive from Tucson. I went directly there from the airport, stopping only for a quick lunch.

I arrived near 3 p.m., and it turns out the “walk around and show yourself the site” time period ends at 4 p.m. When I travel, it often strikes me as odd how early some places tend to close. If your going to visit, make it a priority and get there early! They do have guided tours as well, but earlier in the day than when I was going to arrive.

FourMeter

The Big Four Meter Scope!

I’ve been to Mt. Wilson a few times, and some other major observatories, but I was most struck by how big Kitt Peak is. More than a dozen MAJOR observatories and instruments are located there, each of which would make a interesting stop all by themselves. I went directly to the visitor center to check in for the night time program I signed up for and then went off on foot to take some pictures. I really only had time to visit one instrument, the gigantic Mayall 4-meter scope. An elevator ride takes you to the top where you can see the scope from an observation room. The mirror is 4 meters in diameter (thus the name right?) and it weighs 15 tons! That’s just the mirror! Oh, man to image for a night on that puppy!

Sunset at Kitt Peak

Sunset at Kitt Peak

I contacted a “friend of a friend” who worked there, and he was out of town and not available for a personal tour, so I signed up for the regular Nightly Observing Program. It was less than $50 and it included a meal. This program started at 6 p.m., which leaves about two hours to kill at the visitors center after the normal 4 o’clock closing time. The program was well done and organized. Attendees learn to use a star chart, focus binoculars, and are told some of the history of the site. We saw Jupiter and Venus during the daytime through one of the outreach scopes, and they had things well staggered out as the sun set and twilight took over, including a view of sunset from one of the high ridges where onlookers watched for the green flash (and no we didn’t see it).

The highlight of the evening for me was the outreach telescope we used. It was a 20″ RC Optical on a Paramount ME. It had to be the most overloaded ME I’ve ever seen. There were 7 20lb counterweights and the one on the end looked like it was 40lbs!

The Venerable Paramount ME

The Venerable Paramount ME – pushed well beyond spec!

I asked our tour guide how much the scope weighed, and he just said “a couple hundred pounds”. This program was intended for a very general audience and I really didn’t want to be “that guy” in the crowd so I didn’t press for more information about the mount, nor try to show off that I worked for the company that made them. That model of Paramount is now retired of course, and the ME II was beefed up to handle loads such as this. It’s quite the testament that when well balanced, this mount could handle that much of a load. The sound of the mount was also somewhat nostalgic to me… I hand’t realized just how quiet the newer models were, and that sound reminded me of many nights under the stars next to one working on software or practicing my own imaging skills. Interestingly, when I posted this photo on my Facebook page I found that I have friends who actually set this scope up years ago and it ran great on this mount and served for years as an excellent imaging platform!  Visually, it did well too and we saw a small sampling of objects through the eyepiece, including the recently full moon with a rim full of craters in sharp relief.

Another “fun” aspect of the visit was at the end of the program, we all went down the mountain in a processional of sorts with our headlights either off or covered so as to not disturb the “working astronomers” with stray light in their scopes. My only regret is that I could not have stayed a little longer, at least for some nightscape images with those domes in the backdrop. There is also an advanced program that goes all night and you can image on one of the scopes there…. well, maybe next time.

Lucas and Dean were the names of the guides that evening and they both did a fantastic job. Dean I needled once or twice for more detailed information about a few things and he was happy to share (and he looked very familiar… I’ve probably seen him at one of the Arizona shows before). I made some mental notes as I too sometimes volunteer for outreach events and consult with another observatory with active public programs. I suppose it was also just fun to be a “secret shopper” of sorts 😉

Richard

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The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

As a vendor in the astrophotography business I have access to a lot of premium gear for my use. But I do have to use my own money for much of my passion, and being that I’m not independently wealthy, I often have to be careful and go the “budget” route. I’ve rented and enjoyed using some high quality lenses for wide field photography and finally realized I was spending more money renting than if I’d just outright buy one. So I looked around and after some failed attempts to snag a high end lens off eBay at a steal, I went with a recommendation made by many a talented (and far more experienced than I) wide field photographers have suggested, a Rokinon lens.

Rokinon, Samyang, Bower… these are all the same manufacturer but branded differently for reasons I do not know. The well-regarded lens review site www.photozone.de gave the Samyang lens excellent marks on sharpness, and I had borrowed a friends on a vacation trip out west and compared it to a Zeiss lens I rented. I did like the Zeiss better for landscape photography (never had cloud free skies for stars!), it just felt better and it had focus confirmation. A bit out of my budget however and aside from all the literature, two personal friends had Rokinon lenses and recommend them so I took the plunge and ordered one via Amazon just before my Alaskan vacation where I hoped to shoot the Aurora outside Fairbanks (see my previous blog about this).

Asymetry

Uneven focus and sharpness across the field.

As everyone knows when you get new equipment, it attracts clouds. It was days before I could get starlight to do a proper test of the lens at a small lake near my home. I put the lens on my Canon 5D Mark III, grabbed my tripod and despite the moonlight was determined to get some stars to see how things went. I used live view to focus on the back and took several test shots. They all had this disappointing asymmetry across the field. Sharpish stars in the middle, large bloated out of focus stars on the right, and elongated distortion on the left. I was heart broken, and it was only a couple days before my Alaskan trip. I did what most people do, which was doubt myself. Perhaps I was out of focus? I even stopped the lens down as much as f/5.6, no change except perhaps slightly less distorted stars on the left hand side of the field.

Wide enough... you can't tell.

Wide enough… you can’t tell.

I took it anyway to Alaska thinking to refine my skills and make sure it wasn’t user error. I even setup and used a laptop and the camera software I work on in my day job to make sure I had good focus… alas, the same asymmetry was readily apparent. At a wide enough angle, you can’t hardly tell. I could see it though. My aurora photographs were quite satisfactory for many reasons, but looking closely I could see that the stars on the left were smaller and brighter than the stars on the right hand side of the field, and I knew why even if you couldn’t tell once the image was down sampled small enough.

When I returned home I declared the lens a lemon and friends on Facebook counseled me that they too had returned their original lenses, then evaluated another. One said he had gone through three lenses before finding a good one. It seems they can be good, but the quality control is such that you had to look for them in the pile. For the money, they are excellent values… but you might have to pick through a few like bypassing bad apples at the grocery. So, rather than return the lens for a refund, I asked for an exchange. To Amazon’s (or Amazon Prime’s) credit, this was hassle free. They sent me a replacement lens immediately before I had even returned the bad one.

A far more satisfactory wide field star field.

A far more satisfactory wide field star field.

This time the wait for clear weather was not so long. The day after I received the replacement I took it to the “duck pond” and tried it out again. This time the stars were good all the way across the field with the edges showing some distortion as you’d expect from a lens this fast, but it was symmetric all across the field. I took it down to my observatory the following weekend and did some milky way test shots. I was quite pleased as you really can shoot at f/2.8 with this lens with minimal distortions in the corners.

Some distortion at the edges of an f/2.8 field.

Some distortion at the edges of an f/2.8 field.

In fact, short of a high quality flat field astrograph, I’ve never shot through a camera lens that didn’t have some distortions off center without having to severely stop them down. The image shown here is actually quite impressive really as it was shot wide open at f/2.8. These stars at the far edges show some distortion when zoomed in about 400%, but this is far better than I’ve seen on my more expensive lenses.

There is a bit of barrel distortion of the entire field that these lenses are well known for. Your not likely to be able to tell on a starscape or wide field landscape shot, but Adobe Photo Raw can fix this with a downloadable lens profile that will warp the entire image back to flat. I found this too to be not really objectionable, and with the improved field and really quite exceptional performance at the edges and corners, I’d declare this lens an excellent value… possibly the best available, for wide field nightscape photography. Just make sure you don’t pick up a rotten apple when you get yours…

Richard

 

 

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