Curse of the New Telescope – Orion SkyQuest XT8

This is just a quick post to get something new up on this site. I upgraded my telescope to the SkyQuest XT8 and it is quite the upgrade over my old PowerSeeker 120EQ. The most obvious difference being the size, followed by the fact it’s a full Dobsonian telescope.

A full size men’s basketball to give a sense of scale.

The new scope weight almost 40 pounds and is relatively awkward to carry outside the house, but once I do get it set up it’s usually worth it. However, I’ve been struck with the curse of a new telescope. There’s really only be a few “clear” nights and on those nights the humidity sat around 90%. I did manage to snap pictures of a few things over two separate nights (see below). These pictures are much improved over the ones I’ve been taking with my 120EQ, but they also don’t represent what this new telescope can really do.

I’m also hoping, though it’s highly unlikely I’ll be able to manage it with my Galaxy S9 camera, to take some pictures of the faintest hint of some deep sky objects. I need to be able to see them in my scope, first, and the weather has just not granted me the opportunity.

Vega shines brightly.
Dusty Mars.
Pretty moon pic.
Fuzzy Saturn. Blame the dew forming on the mirror.
A fuzzy but clearer picture of Jupiter than I’ve been able to take before. Blame the humidity.

Dabbling in Galactic Voyeurism

I’ve been dabbling in some galactic voyeurism as of late. By that I mean, I’ve taken a crack at amateur astrophotography. Put more simply, I’ve been taking pictures of planets and the moon through my new telescope with my smartphone. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

It’s been surprisingly easy to do and has produced some pretty surprising results. No, I’m not taking Hubble quality images, but I am getting way better picture than I have any right to.

For Christmas, I was given the Celestron PowerSeeker 127EQ, which is a Newtonian Reflector type of telescope. It uses a large mirror to capture light and focus onto a smaller mirror that sends the image to a lens in the eyepiece. It has a focal length of 1,000mm, which is the big number for determining the upper magnification power limit of the telescope. The formula goes that the magnification of the telescope is equal to its focal length (1,000mm) divided by the focal length of the eyepiece lens. The scope came with a 20mm and 4mm lenses and I purchased the Celestron PowerSeeker Accessory Kit for two more lenses, a 15mm and a 9mm. So with each of those eyepieces my possible magnifications are roughly 50x, 67x, 111x, and 250x. The 15mm and 9mm lenses are my favorites to use.

Included with the scope was a 3x Barlow lens, which for all intents an purposes, “zooms” in on whatever image you’re looking at by 3x at the cost of sharpness and brightness. It’s very much akin to using the digital zoom on a camera. I haven’t been too impressed with it so far and I’m curious if a 2x Barlow would produce better results.

So, with all these lenses and this pretty decent amateur telescope, I set out on my adventure of exploring the solar system from my driveway. It is not an ideal location to setup a telescope with plenty of light pollution (stupid streetlight), being less than 50ft above sea level, and only have a few completely clear nights. My first target was the moon, mainly because I wanted to adjust the finder scope so that it would be properly aligned with the telescope. The most frustrating thing about using any kind of high-powered telescope is actually pointing it at what you’re trying to look at. And the more powerfully and narrower the field of view is, the faster the object you’re trying to target will move away. I took a couple of videos that demonstrate this.

The moon is easy to find with a telescope, especially with the low magnification 20mm eyepiece. With the moon sighted, I adjusted the finder scope and set about trying a couple of different lenses. And once I was comfortable with those and operating the telescope, I broke out the handy little gadget that lets me attached my Samsung Galaxy S7 to the telescope, Gosky Universal Cell Phone Adapter Mount. Fitting my phone into it and adjusting it so the camera lines up with the eyepiece takes some fidgeting and is most easily done with a bright target like the moon and the low power 20mm lens. But it takes some trial and error.

Once I got that right, I had to manage the camera settings on the Galaxy S7. Getting deep into them hasn’t been as intuitive as I would like and I’m still playing with them. The camera wants to be helpful with a lot of automatic settings and light sensors, but those things actually hinder trying to take a crisp image. I suppose I should go hunting for an app designed to set the camera settings for astrophotography. One important thing I did learn (other than disabling flash) was to set at least a 2 second time delay on taking photos and video. My telescope is actually really stable on its aluminum tripod mount, but just pressing the camera button on my phone’s screen causes slight shaking that becomes more noticeable the higher up in magnification you go. That 2 second delay lets the vibration mostly subside so I could take a clearer picture.

Here’s one of the first pictures I took of the moon. I believe I used the 15mm eyepiece and you can see how I don’t quite have my phone’s camera close enough to the eyepiece. That curved edge on the right of the image is the phone catching the edge of the lens. The camera’s field of view tends to be larger than the lenses I have.

Taken with 15mm lens and Samsung Galaxy S7.

While taking pictures, it also occurred to me that I could shoot video as well. The camera actually works somewhat better in video mode for this than in snapshot mode. Unfortunately, there’s a little noise being picked up by the mic. I need to research how to disable it for these kinds of videos.

I’m going to work on getting some better pictures of the moon when it gets fuller and the weather clears up. The next picture, which was one of many I took, is of Jupiter and four of its moons, which I believe are referred to as the Galilean moons. The sky wasn’t perfectly clear when I was watching Jupiter, having a slight haze to it. Again, I’m going to try to get better pictures when Jupiter gets closer to earth in the next couple of months.

Taken with 9mm lens and Samsung Galaxy S7.

And here’s the video clip I took of the gas giant and its moons. Notice how swiftly it moves through the lens and the field of my camera at a little over 100x magnification and about 2x digital zoom.

But where are your Venus pictures, you might be wondering. Venus is the brightest object in the sky, second to the moon. Well, I’ve tried and I don’t know what gives. I got one good look at Venus with my low power 20mm lens where I could barely make out its crescent appearance. But after changing lens, it just turns into a bright blotch. One time, I think this was due to condensation forming on the telescopes mirror. Another time, I think it must have been some thin, high clouds. It should reach its peak brightness on February 17. So, I’m hoping for clear skies then so I can try to get some good pictures.

Until then, I’m looking forward to more galactic voyeurism with my Galaxy phone. I mean, Samsung must have known what they were doing when they named the phone that, right?

I Covered LIGO Before It Was Cool

Back in 2005 when I was an undergraduate in Physics at LSU, I tried to cover LIGO for the weekly campus newspaper I freelanced for, Tiger Weekly. You may have heard of LIGO in recent days with the discovery of gravity waves. Well, I knew what they were trying to do over a decade ago and how cool and monumental a thing it would be. I just had trouble convincing others of this fact.

The problem was things were tumultuous at the paper with a new editor and an attempt to adjust the content to appeal to a broader readership. And the way things worked was a writer would propose a story idea, the editor(s) would give it the green light or not, and then the writer would go to work on the story for the next issue. Well, this process did not guarantee the story would ever be published and the writer paid.

I was considered the news guy at the time and was often tasked with some of the more difficult subjects and stories we covered, especially the technical ones. This was not necessarily a good role to have to play at a paper more focused on drug use, student’s sex lives, sports, selling beer and bar ads, and covering whatever the controversial flavor of the month was, but I played it. I enjoyed it, usually. I actually learned about LIGO while covering some other stories coming out of LSU’s Center for Computation for Computation and Technology (CCT), like the hiring of a former NASA JPL computer scientist, Dr. Thomas Sterling, that went by the nickname “tron.” It was cool stuff.

Well, LIGO fascinated me when I learned about it for a few reasons. First, I love reading stuff about black holes and gravity and I got to speak with people using supercomputers to model the collision of spiraling neutron stars. Nerd heaven.

Second, LIGO is based in Livingston, Louisiana, which is about an hour from LSU’s campus, and it seemed shocking that such research was being done in the state. It was like learning they were testing a warp drive down the road. And the folks at the CCT were always nice and cooperative and more than happy to discuss their work with me

And third (this is completely geeky), my sci-fi theory for faster than light travel revolves around gravity waves.

My thinking goes (and I was told this was the case) that gravity waves behave like regular waves, meaning they can interfere with one another. I’ll just link to the wiki article on the phenomena to save time. So if gravity waves can interfere with another another like regular waves then you can do one of two interesting things: neutralize a wave or cause it to resonate. Just like how a singer can shatter a champagne glass by producing the right tone, we might be able to do something similar to space-time itself without needing a pair of black holes. That’s what’s great about resonance patterns and standing waves. They let you keep contributing tiny bits of energy to a wave to keep increasing its amplitude. It’s like pushing someone on a swing to get them higher and higher. So, let’s do the same with gravity and significantly smaller masses to see what happens.

I even emailed Michio Kaku once asking if this was possible, but never got a response. I’ll put it in a wildly popular book one day and then he won’t be able to ignore me any longer! Geek rant (fail) over.

So, I brought the story to the attention of the editor and dove right into setting up interviews and doing research. After many hours of work, I produced a 900 words feature story on the facility and sent it to the editor for review. She rejected it on the basis it was too technical.

I was really upset with this at the time and it even irks me a little now, given the recent breakthrough. I had been so excited about the story and put a lot of time and effort into it, as well as taking up other people’s time. And well, I didn’t get paid. It might have only been like $25 or $30. I can’t remember for certain, but it was my money. But looking back now with the benefit of experience and reading the original story (which I pulled off a laptop older than the story), the editor wasn’t completely wrong. The story was in need of some dumbing down.

Fortunately, I wasn’t finished with LIGO. It took another year and a new editor (managing editor), as well as developing my own abilities and reputation as a writer. We got one of those overly complicated press releases about the facility “reaching design sensitivity,” and the managing editor at the time (who kept things running through Katrina), Samantha Morgan, brought it to my attention. Well, I jumped at the chance to do another LIGO story and be paid for it this time. Samantha, who remains a good friend and has moved onto much bigger and better things, was a lot more open-minded about story ideas, thankfully. And I felt that was to the benefit of the paper. So, when I got in touch with old contacts, reused some stuff from the original story I wrote, and updated things with the news in the press release, she published the story. It took a year, but I got it done.

I wish I could link to the story. Once upon a time, I could have, but the original website that hosted all of my freelance stories from those days died when the paper re-branded itself, DIG. It’s kind of sad and I wish the publisher would post those old stories in an archive format or something, assuming copies of them still exist.

Nevertheless, I like to hold onto things that might become important later, so here’s a scan from one of my old copies of the original issue of Tiger Weekly, March 22-28, 2006. You can click on them to enlarge them for the sake of readability. And yes, there is at least one typo. I think I have a typo curse or something about my writing style screws with people’s brains. Even when my stuff goes through professional editors, its weird how artifacts escape notice. And I’m not faulting Samantha. Tiger Weekly had a shoestring (if your shoestrings are made of dental floss) budget and reliable copy editors were hard to come by. The one or two we did have time to time were usually just overwhelmed trying to edit a dozen stories on a Sunday afternoon.

LIGO Story 2006_0001 LIGO Story 2006_0002

And for comparison sake, here’s the original 2005 version of the story. It’s more general, more technical, was never published, and never passed before the eyes of a copy editor. But I’m still a little proud of it. It’s cool being able to say that, yes, I covered what LIGO was up to ten years before the big boys even deigned to notice it. I bet the relevant Wikipedia entries got slammed with traffic when word got out.

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