Emerald Coast Astronomy

with Bob Gaskin

Setting Up for Star Gaze

On the evening of May 25, 2012, members of the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomy Association hosted a “star gaze” at Henderson Beach State Park which sits right on the Gulf of Mexico in Destin, Florida.  My favorite grab and go rig is still the iOptron Mini Tower and 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescope.   Here I am explaining how my rig works to a curious grandmother and excited future astronomer.

Posted 8 years, 10 months ago at 1:21 pm.

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For nearly all K-12 students in America, knowledge of astronomy is limited to what can be obtained from student textbooks.  Occasionally a local astronomy club will offer its services and conduct at “star gaze” for a limited number of students.  However, for most students at American schools, the opportunity to view planets within our solar system and deep space objects will never come.

In 2009 I tried to change that by focusing on eight  schools within the a school district located  in the Panhandle of Florida.   I wanted each school to have a simple, affordable, computerized Altitude/Azimuth mount and at least a 6″ (150mm) cassegrain telescope.   The school district obtained a large grant for the purchase of astronomy systems, and I recommended that  they buy  iOptron Alt/Az Mini Towers and iOptron 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescopes for all participating schools.   Eight schools volunteered to institute a program and provide volunteer teachers for training.  In the fall of 2009, the school district received all telescopes and mounts from iOptron and training commenced in December, 2009.    Initial classes focused on assembling the tripod, mount and telescope quickly and under conditions teachers would encounter during an outdoor star gaze.   No problems were encountered during this phase of the program.

The first problem that surfaced was that with a few exceptions, nearly every teacher was completely ignorant of the night sky.   While some teaching on my part took place, the burden was on each teacher to learn the sky.   I bought many basic astronomy books which were available online or at the local Barnes and Noble store and gave them to the most interested teachers.  Since the schools had allocated no money for these books, each teacher had to purchase them out of pocket or get me to do the same.  The lack of financial support from each school  to support the program proved to be a constant problem.  Meanwhile, the teachers had no idea of what deep space objects existed in the evening skies.   They did not know the difference between an open star cluster and a globular cluster, a reflection nebula and an emission nebula, a spiral galaxy and an elliptical galaxy.  On and On.  For teachers, if it wasn’t in the textbook, they were completely ignorant of what the night sky contained for viewing.  This problem persists to the present day at star gazes offered by local astronomy clubs.   Once the astronomer leaves the Solar System, students and teachers have no idea of what they are looking at.

The second problem was encountered by the female teachers in the group.    While the 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescope was considered by most male astronomers to be a lightweight telescope, female teachers had a real problem getting the scope out of the case and onto the mount, balanced and secured.  Most brought husbands along to help with this task.

The third problem for teachers was learning how to work the mount’s computerized controls, both to align the mount and then to move from target to target during student star gazes.   For most, this proved to be the most difficult problem.   The mount had to be aligned and this required the knowledge of key stars that most teachers lacked.  Second, the teachers were unable to understand the coded identities of objects outside our Solar System.   They did not know the difference between a Messier object (M) or an object in the New General Catalog (NGC).

The fourth problem was money for program support from the schools.   For example, the 150mm Maksutov Cassegrain telescopes from iOptron came with what I would consider a very inferior 1.25″ diagonal and two 1.25″ eyepieces, one high power and the other moderate power.   Given the problems students had in learning how to look through a telescope eyepiece in the first place, these small 1.25″ instruments made things especially difficult.   After much cajoling schools finally provided 2″ star diagonals for each telescope but were unwilling to spend the additional money for a 2″ eyepiece to match it.   I bought several 2″ eyepieces for motivated teachers out of my own pocket.  But in the end it did little good, as these teachers moved on and no teachers volunteered to step up and learn what was needed to keep the program going at their school.

After three years, the program basically collapsed.  The two exceptions were (1) a teacher who was already an astronomer with his own equipment was able to conduct regular star gazes for his students, but even here, he could only handle small groups, so he limited the observing program to the gifted and talented classes. (2) one especially dedicated teacher who taught herself astronomy and worked with the mount and scope so much that she became a master at its operations and very knowledgeable about astronomy in general.  Teachers like this one, did not exist at the other schools.

So, success with this program is indeed possible for school astronomy programs using moderately sophisticated astronomy equipment, but only with the highest degree of dedication from the teachers involved.    Today, those high quality iOptron mounts and telescopes are are tucked away in  storage closets in  most schools originally in the program  as the teachers go back to the old practice of asking nearby astronomy clubs to schedule star gazes for their students.  Its ironic that schools often had better equipment in their storage closets than that which local astronomers brought to the star gazes.

Conclusion:  Its the dedication of the teachers that is the key to any successful school astronomy program.  It makes no difference what kind of equipment is involved or if the teachers don’t now astronomy in general, the dynamics of the night sky.  If the teachers are not willing to put in the time to learn what they must teach and then meet with their students under night skies, long after school has been dismissed, the program will never succeed.

I am more than willing to consult for free with any school considering instituting an astronomy program or astronomy club within the school so as to avoid the mistakes made with the program I was involved with for three years.

Posted 8 years, 11 months ago at 6:26 am.

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Bob’s LX-200 Stilll Going Strong After 5 Years

I jumped into astronomy from a standing start in 2005 with the purchase of a 12″ Meade LX-200 with UHTC.   Alignment is helped considerably using it Global Positioning System.  It’s still sharp as a tack on performance and I keep it as clean as a new penny.   I have a number of other refractors for astro-imaging (see equipment page), but this LX-200 is a top knotch performer when it comes to just plain old observing the night skies.

-Bob Gaskin

Posted 10 years, 4 months ago at 8:58 pm.

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Easy Mini Tower Rig for Grab N’ Go

I use the iOptron Mini Tower Turbo as modified by Steve Forbes for star parties and grab and go operations.  I mate it with the Explore Scientific 80mm APO for incredible ease of operation.   The APO plus a 13mm Ethos yields a fantastic sight.  And the accuracy of the Mini Tower is simply unbelievable.     

Bob Gaskin  -  Miramar Beach,  FL

Posted 10 years, 6 months ago at 4:22 pm.

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New Imaging Freedom for the Short Timers

Some astrophotographers have it made.  They get to set up their imaging rigs in observatories or remote locations and image all night, literally for hours.   The result of such long exposure sessions generally results in spectacular images from deep space.  Others, such as me, are tied to temporary imaging locations, thus limiting their abilities to image for hours on end.  Until recently, most processing software did not make it especially easy to stack numerous imaging frames taken on different nights of the week or even in the same month.   Thus for some imagers, deep space imaging sessions of 4 to 6 hours are nothing, while others struggle to do what the can with 1 to 3 hours at the most.  Getting to bed at 1AM is not advisable for those who have to get up at 6AM and go to work the next day.  But recently something has changed all that, opening the door to the bird cage for those heretofore limited to short imaging sessions.   CCDStack processing software had added new gimmick: a plug-in for CCDStack from one of its other successful pieces of software, CCD Inspector.  Now short time imagers can take a series of photos from different nights of the week, month or even year and easily stack them into a single LRGB color photo.   This new freedom finally allows the short timers to compile stunning images, comparable to the Big Boys with their remote observatories on a remote New Mexico mountainside.   As an example, I was only able to image a limited amount of luminance, or clear frames, of the globular cluster, M2, hanging high in the Eastern August skies.  Weather closed in after about an hour and shut me down from completing the color frames needed to process a balanced LRGB image.  So I tried CCDStack’s new CCD Inspector plug for CCDStack and pulled up color frames from September, 2007, some two years previous to my clear image shot the night of August 14th, 2009.   The software did not miss a beat and easily stacked them with a simple command “Align All.” That’s it.  Nothing very complicated about it.  While the final image below is not exactly “eye watering,” it does show that an LRGB image from deep space is now easily possible by combining frames taken years apart.   The door to the imaging birdcage is now open for the short timers.



Posted 11 years, 8 months ago at 7:49 am.

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Imaging M13 Globular Cluster


June 2, 2009

The night of June 1 was decision time.  Image or not.   The night was clear, humidity was low and the winds were calm- perfect for imaging deep space.  The only problem was the Moon.  It was Waxing First Quarter and getting bigger every night.   But I was imaging to the East and the Moon was still over my right shoulder.  What he heck!  I got the rig up, polar aligned, slipped the ST-10XME into the TMB 152 APO  and went for M13, mainly to see if I could do better than last year, which was the last time I had imaged this beautiful globular.   At Mag 5.8 and 20 by 20 arcminutes it was a very attractive target.  I also wanted to experiment with a new piece of equipment, a Starizona Microfocuser.   Two other recent images, M3 and M5 in the Star Clusters album were much better than anything I have done before, mainly due to very sharp focus.  So I was curious about M13.  I slewed the AP900 to Dubhe in Ursa Major and got a good star sync, then slewed to Izar, a good 2.3 Mag star in Bootes to use the Microfocuser on my focus for the main event.   I got great focus, then slewed to M13, got it centered and began imaging using an LRGB sequence.   Exposure as follows  L: 13 x 120 sec  RGB at 5 x 120 sec apiece.  I had taken the darks the night before at the same temp.   I processed in CCDStack today and the sharpness of the stars blew me out of my seat.   I have never done work that this.   After finishing up in Photoshop, I sent the JPG to my daughters who are interested in my photos and then posted it in the Star Clusters album.  — Bob Gaskin

Posted 11 years, 10 months ago at 8:03 pm.

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