Clear Weather Returns But the Humidity Remains

After 2 or 3 months we finally saw some clear night skies and I was able to do some basic, crappy imaging of the Messier 31, The Andromeda Galaxy, and attempt some planetary imaging.

I will qualify what I said about the weather a little. We have had the odd clear night, but either the timing was bad for me or it was clear but the humidity was above 90%. The imaging I did do over last week saw the humidity hanging around 70% and I still finished the night sopping wet. Not comfortable at all. It feels like waiting for someone to finish a long hot shower so you can go in right after them and start setting up a heavy telescope.

All that said, I managed to get some snaps on Thursday night, staying up a little later than I should have. I got my whole computerized rig with laptop set up in my backyard and got everything aligned properly. The sky wasn’t great. There was some wispy high cloud cover, but I thought it would be fine for planets, especially one as bright as Jupiter is right now. Saturn, while relatively tiny at the moment, just passed opposition a few days before, so it was also pretty bright.

The problem was, and I later confirmed, that trying to image directly above a house that’s been baking in the sun for the entirety of the daylight hours causes a lot of heat shimmer. The focuser on my primary astrophotography scope has a normal and fine adjustment nob. And I was viewing the images directly through the eyepiece on a zoomed-in digital image on my laptop by way of my Orion StarShoot Mini. But I could not obtain a clear focus.

Still, I was ready to go, had all my gear out, and was sweating like a pig. I shot some video with the StarShoot to use for stacking later in Registax6. And I dug out my old smart phone mount and expensive planetary imaging eyepiece. Despite far more magnification, the result was the same with auto (sometimes you get lucky) and manual focus. Fuzz.

Somewhat dismayed, I broke everything down and went in to grab a shower. I then stayed up even later running alignment and stacking on my laptop. The resulting image was pretty crappy. So much so, I didn’t save it. What you see below are the better, touched up images from my Samsung Galaxy S20.

Jupiter. Taken with Samsung Galaxy S20 and my Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch with house heat shimmer.
Saturn. Taken with Samsung Galaxy S20 and my Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch with house heat shimmer.

The following Saturday, aware of the shimmer issue, I tried again. But I was smarter (lazier) this time. Rather than drag out all the computerized mount stuff and align everything, I carried my old Orion SkyQuest XT8 scope out to the front of my house and set up in my driveway. There’s way, way more light pollution out front from nearby streetlights to neighbors porchlights and the occasional passing car. But for planets, that’s fine, unless you’re trying to find Polaris to polar align your mount. Thankfully, I wasn’t.

This second attempt I actually got some cleaner video, roughly 4GB for each planet. I didn’t bother much with my smartphone this time. Unlike my computerize mount, this scope doesn’t follow the planets, so grabbing video of them with a 2x Barlow lens seemed like a better idea. Both scopes have roughly the same focal length and magnification but the SkyQuest does gather more light. The planets are so bright, though, that light isn’t much of a problem. Here’s the result after a little aligning and stacking.

Jupiter and its moons taken with Orion StarShoot Mini and Orion SkyQuest XT8 without house heat shimmer and some image stacking.
Saturn taken with Orion StarShoot Mini and Orion SkyQuest XT8 without house heat shimmer and some image stacking.

Encouraged, as that Jupiter pic was the best result I’ve gotten so far with the StarShoot Mini and Registax6 of a planet (first time done in my front yard), I planned to set up for some deep sky imaging the following night.

The humidity was definitely worse than the previous night. Water began beading on my scope, tripod, and mount before I even got all the cables connect. I spent several minutes warming everything up with a hair dryer and de-fogging all the lenses. That lasted the rest of the night, thankfully.

I did the same to my laptop so I could connect the StarShoot Mini to use as my auto guider. I then connected my Canon Eos Ra and all the other cables before attempting to balance the scope. I thought the balance was pretty good, except for maybe being a little heavy on the backend. I assumed the mount could tolerate that and proceeded to fire things up, begin the alignment procedure, and check to be sure all the finder scopes were pointing accurately.

The 3-star alignment seemed to work like a charm, but when I tried to lock onto a star to allow P2HD to guide things, I got an error that it couldn’t make sufficient adjustments to the declination. So, I attempted to slip my scope just a little bit forward to balance the backend but ended up cause the mount to turn. That was bad. It meant I had to zero everything out and start over.

The problem with performing the 3-star alignment is I have to contort myself into some pretty awkward angles sometimes to find a star in the finder scope so I can adjust the telescopes position properly. The other problem is the alignment procedure often selects stars I can’t see from my backyard because of trees and houses. It’s not the programs fault, but it’s still a pain.

An hour later I got everything re-aligned and the object search function to be mostly spot on, which is really important when you can’t actually see the object you’re looking for with your naked eye. I adjusted the focus and exposure time on the StarShoot Mini and could clearly see Andromeda as a bright, cloudy orb on my laptop screen. That was much more of a delight than it should have been, but it was also 1 a.m. and I was drenched in sweat and chugging bottles of water.

I picked Andromeda as my target for night, because I knew it would be relatively bright and wouldn’t be obstructed by anything (except massive light pollution from the city). I’ve also been wanted to get a much improved image of it since it was one of my earliest targets, even with my old Samsung Galaxy S9.

Since I lost an hour to adjustments, I set the camera to grab 15 images with 4 minute exposures at a 1600 ISO. That’s more ISO than I’ve typically used with so much light pollution, but I hoped by Photoshop skills and tools would let me filter more of it out than in the past.

The hour passed as I listened to an audio book, sipped water, and wiped my face over and over with a rag. It was R.A. Salvatore’s latest addition to the Drizzt saga, Starlight Enclave. It’s a guilty pleasure at this point but it kept me entertained. I did check the LCD screen a few times as images would snap and display. It all looked good and I was relieved to be able to begin picking up and snapping some darks and flats once the last image clicked. It was nearly 3 a.m. before I got everything picked up and moved back inside. And dear god, I needed a shower.

While I remembered basically everything about setting up my gear and aligning it, I wasn’t so fortunate with Adobe Photoshop. In the past few months I had forgotten so many hotkeys and procedures. I need to go back and refresh my memory with some of the tutorial videos I watched. In the meantime, this was the best I could do. The light pollution in the bottom is just horrible. Either GradientXTerminator stopped working due to some update or it just couldn’t save me.

Messier 31, Andromeda Galaxy. Taken with Canon Eos Ra and Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch.

Strangely enough, after comparing the image to some of earlier attempts, this one is actually the best of the bunch. You can actually see some of the nebulosity in the disk, rather than just a ball of light. I think I can do a lot better with a darker sky and more time to collect data. I might also try to reprocess the image once I’ve regained some of my Photoshop skills.

The Ballad of Orta, My Favorite Meeper

With the weather being so crumby lately for astrophotography, I thought I’d relay the story of my kitten, Orta. That’s a picture of her from a few days ago.

Orta exploring the carport.

I’ve always liked cats. I’ve always had friends that have them. I think they’re funny creatures. But I’ve also had an allergy to them. I tried adopting a rescue several years before but had to return her because my allergies got so bad. Since then, I discovered Cetirizine and that’s made me mostly allergy bulletproof.

I adopted Orta on Labor Day last year from a local rescue organization. I was looking for a female Siamese kitten. I called and searched multiple shelters looking for a kitten with those qualities. I prefer Siamese cats. I think they’re the most dog-like of cats. It’s a great hybrid. They’re very intelligent and curious and very vocal. When I’m alone with Orta she doesn’t shut up most of the time. Siamese also want to be around you, which might surprise some non-cat owners.

I eventually found Orta, who was named “Willow” at the time by the organization. She was a Siamese-mix and that was close enough for me. I drove her back from the shelter in the little carrier I brought. It was an hour card ride and she barely made a peep (or I should say, “meep” Orta makes a meep sound a lot). When I was introduced to her for the first time, she was very quiet and timid, except for when she wanted to get away and climbed out of my arms.

I actually had to make two trips to the organization to adopt her. She wasn’t eating and was losing weight. Her caretaker wanted to keep her for another couple of weeks to give her more deworming meds.

That’s her below not long after I brought her home the first time. Being my first new kitten straight from the shelter I knew she wasn’t well, but I assumed she would do better once she got used to her new environment and wasn’t kept in a smallish room with maybe a dozen other cats.

Sick kitten Orta.

I planned to keep her in this pet playpen I found on Amazon (similar to this one) when I couldn’t directly supervise her. I knew enough that kittens could get into trouble. I placed her carrier in the pen with her own brand new litter box, bed, food/water bowls, and a couple of cat toys.

The poor thing didn’t come out of the carrier. She stayed in it for a couple of hours, maybe. I would pop in to check on what she was doing periodically. Eventually, she got out and would just sit on her haunches with her little tail wrapped around her feet. She stayed like for what seemed like forever.

I was warned by her caretaker that she needed to eat and the best luck she had feeding Orta was with turkey or chicken baby food. So, I started to take her out of the pen a few times to hold her and feed her baby food with a spoon. She would lick a few spoons clean and then stop. She would then curl up on my forearm and proceed to “make biscuits” on my bicep. Her little claws had been recently clipped, so it didn’t bother me.

This continued for a couple of days. She still didn’t move around much at all in her pen. So midway through the second day, I opened the “door” on the pen to see if she would come out on her own. She didn’t move for hours and I got busy with some work. The next thing I knew, she was sitting quietly behind me on the couch.

I was excited to see her starting to explore, until I heard her sneezing. She was sneezing a lot. I went to Google and some of my cat friends for advice and the result was I needed to take her to see a vet; that she had a respiratory virus.

I took her to the Cat Car Center in town. It was a new place specializing in cat care. I dropped her off early in the morning and returned to work. I eventually got the call to come get her, as well as the diagnosis.

Her ears and eyes were infected. Her bloodwork showed parasites. And, perhaps worst of all, she had ringworm. I thought some of her fur looked a little thin, but I didn’t suspect it was caused by that.

So as a first time cat owner, or really pet owner outside of gerbils and hamsters, I had to learn how to administer refrigerated eye drops and eye salve to a kitten. How to give her ear drops. How to use a syringe to give her the anti parasitic/antu-fungal meds. And I had to resign myself to quarantining her for at least 5 weeks, while cleaning her sleep area every day. I also had to take her in for 3 sulfur baths. The vet and techs at the CCC were great about explaining and demonstrating everything to me, though.

Below is what Orta’s pen looked like. The big issue with ringworm is it’s a contagious fungus that spreads on the hair she sheds. Anytime I handled her, the best thing I could do was clean the exposed areas with soap and water and discard my clothing. I wasn’t at a significant risk. I’m a healthy person, so it was really unlikely I’d get ringworm from her, but I had to be sure I didn’t create an auto-infection situation for her.

Orta in her pen, wider shot.

So began our routine. The first couple of weeks were the hardest. I’d get up in the morning and hold her for a while. I’d pet her and let her make biscuits on my arm while I quietly prepared her meds. Then I would start. It only took a few days for her to catch on to what I was doing. It was a real struggle to restrain her in place while put eye drops in her eyes, followed by eye salve. The ear drops were even harder. There needed to be like five drops in each ear and each time you dripped one, she would struggle that much harder. Then I had to keep her from shaking the drops out immediately.

I discovered the best way to give her the anti-parasitic/anti-fungal meds was the mix it in with a bit of her baby food and let her lick the spoon clean.

In the afternoons after work, I would spend an hour shutting her in the bathroom, which she hated, while I methodically took her pen apart. I’d take her littler box out and clean it. Then I’d take the food and water and wash and refill both bowls. I would take her toys to the sink and spray them with bleach water, rinse them, and let them dry. As I readied the food and littler box, I would put them in the bathroom temporarily with Orta.

Then I’d remove the towels I placed on the bottom of the pen and put those directly in the washer while I readied two clean towels. I’d then take the pen outside, shake out, vacuum it, spray it with some Lysol, and let it air out a bit (in the sunlight when able).

Once all that was down, I’d reassemble the pen and go rescue Orta from the bathroom and then vacuum the bathroom. Even though the bathroom was roomier than her pen and had her toys and food, she hated being closed in there. I suspect it was either fear of being left alone or she didn’t like the buzz of the fluorescent light. I would even take time to play with her in there to get her accustomed to it, but it never completely took.

As the weeks progressed, the situation and Orta steadily improved. I gradually weened her off the baby food, except for her meds, which she had to take on and off a week for three weeks. She was eating her kibble on her own and getting friskier. That made it harder to give her some of her meds, but I was done with the eye drops after a couple of weeks and the ear drops not long after.

She would stink of sulfur after her periodic baths, but she wasn’t having a difficult time with them. In fact, she likes to play with water now, sticking her paw in the bathroom faucet when it runs or batting ice cubes around the kitchen. And yes, she had a kitty fountain.

The only growing problem I had was she became more and more eager to get out of her pen and explore her environment. Toward the end, she would jump and nip at my hand whenever I tried to zip it up. And once she learned she could jump on top of the netting when it was partially unzipped, she tried a jail break once or twice. I could actual see that she was angry with me.

The day finally came when the vet gave her blood work the all clear and I released her from the pen. She ran around the kitchen where I had been keeping her, desperate to get into everything. Over the next few days, I watched her explore the various rooms. Most of the time, though, she would stay in whichever room I was in.

Orta being curious.
Orta napping

I was concerned what behavioral problems might come about from keeping her penned up for so long. The only thing to really come of it is she doesn’t like to be held anymore. Yes, she’ll lay on top of me or on the inside of my forearm, but she wiggles and tries to get away if I do the same while standing. Though, I am able to carry her with both hands against my chest for a short bit of time.

She’s grown into a too-healthy cat. That’s her getting into my Christmas tree. I knew cats had a thing for Christmas trees, but I didn’t know how bad of a thing it was. I got her fixed and microchipped in early December and brought her home expecting her to be doped up and sore. Instead what I got was her slipping out of the room where I left her to nap and immediately climbing halfway up the trunk of my Christmas tree! The pic below is from a week or so later, after I was certain she was healed enough to be getting up to so much trouble.

Orta in the Christmas tree.

I saturated that poor Christmas tree with cat repellant, but Orta didn’t care. I actually watched her find a “hole” in the scent barrier and break through it to climb the damn tree. Eventually, she got somewhat bored with the tree, but never so much so I dared to hang my ornaments on it.

She’s very attached to me, follows me room to room, and chirps, twitters, and meeps at me constantly. She very rarely meows. She also loves to lick me and other people like a puppy. It was a little unnerving at first, because you don’t expect her tongue to feel like sandpaper. But I’ve gotten used to it.

She plays fetch when she’s in the mood, but prefers to play chase more. I guess in her mind it’s like eating just the middle of an Oreo. Why waste time with the cookie when you can have just the stuffing?

That’s her below with one of her many balls. I picked up a few packs of these little foam balls from the nearby grocery store. She loves it when I toss the ball down the hall and she can dart through both her cat tunnels in pursuit.

Orta with one of her balls.

By my best estimate, she should make a year in mid-July. For a while early on, I seriously considered returning her. The time and money I spent those first couple of months was prohibitive, but I’m really glad I stuck it out.

That said, I’d encourage anyone looking to adopt an animal to inquire about ringworm. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to properly treat. You should know what you’re getting into and be prepared to manage it.

Lastly, people ask me where I got the name. Most of the time I tell them it came from a Russian ballerina. That’s not actually the case. That’s just what a friend from long ago told me about the name when I used it for a character in an MMO. No, the name really comes from the now classic Panzer Dragoon Orta game on the original Xbox. I played the hell out of the game, and yes, I did buy Orta a stuffed dragon. It’s her favorite kicker toy (other than me).

Orta with her dragon.