FEATURED BACKYARD ASTONOMERS
Steve and Lis Milne are a husband and wife astro-imaging team based in the UK Midlands. They have been imaging since 2014. Steve writes:
Around 10 years ago I was staying at a country house hotel in the Scottish borders. The building was constructed of thick stone blocks that were impervious to mobile phone communication. When the time came to call home, therefore, I had to step outside into the freezing cold to get a signal. What greeted me was astounding. The sky was a riot of stars. Furthermore, there was a strange milky band running across it. What could that be, I wondered.
I bought my first telescope soon after – a Meade ETX 125 PE. We played with this for a while, but then sort of forgot about it. In 2014, I got the itch to buy a larger telescope. I thought I needed more aperture. I was aware that proper astronomers used weird rigs that sat at jaunty angles and had big weights hanging off the end. Obviously, if I wanted to be a proper astronomer I would need one of these too.
Whilst planning all of this, I recall hearing Lis say, “And get one we can put a camera on the back of, so that we can take pretty pictures”… That was the beginning.
By now, I had stumbled upon an internet forum called Stargazers Lounge. I mentioned the camera notion to the helpful people there. With great tact, they invited me to consider the challenges involved in guiding a telescope with over 2m focal length at what would be a resolution of 0.49″ with my DSLR. What did they know? The short focal length telescopes that they advised were all well and good, but surely they would not have the same magnification as the 8” SCT I had my eye on. And astronomy was all about magnification, wasn’t it? And so, the money was spent.
I had been taking landscape photographs for some years and considered myself reasonably competent at that. However, much to my surprise, my astronomy pictures turned out very badly indeed. I was back to being a rank beginner. Everything seemed much more difficult than I was used to. Even something as ‘straightforward’ as finding acceptable focus was a significant undertaking. And then it seemed to shift as the night wore on.
I feel obliged to share one of my early efforts. For my first attempt at M31 I used a Nikon full-frame DSLR camera and a prime 180mm Nikon lens, all attached to a plastic bracket bolted on top of the telescope. I fired off a series of 25 x 2 minute exposures. The result was this little beauty.
‘Horrible’ does not do it justice. It was time to go back to those nice folks on the internet. This time I would pay a bit more attention.
Over the coming months my wife and I would come to be on first-name terms with the various courier company drivers who were coming to our door on a near daily basis. We got hold of a short focal length refractor as had been recommended along with a hundred and one other ‘bits and bobs’.
Setting up and tearing down our modest imaging rig, night after night, would soon become a chore. Added to this was the unpredictable UK weather: I lost count of the times we finished setting up only to see the clouds roll in over our heads. There were many nights when I nearly threw the entire rig over the garden fence (my wife has a much more pleasant temperament – she just wanted to set it all on fire). The nadir came one evening when I put my foot into a hole that our dog had helpfully dug in the garden earlier that day. I crashed face first to the ground and was winded to such an extent that I was unable to call out for help to Lis who was standing only a few feet away in the darkness. For a brief moment as I lay there in the mud, I wondered if it was she who had actually dug the hole.
It was time for a backyard observatory.
We decided upon a roll-off roof observatory, because we thought that it would be less likely to attract the attention of our neighbours than a dome. Of course, there is nothing quite like the sight of a roof rolling off a shed to attract the attention of one’s neighbours. For a time, we received strange looks from them. We were never sure why that was so, until one of them eventually plucked up the courage to ask us what we were up to. It transpired that the neighbours had assumed that we had built a ‘hot-tub cabin’ and that the roof rolled-off in order to allow us to ‘party’ under the night sky. As if.
During construction, we congratulated ourselves on our cleverness in deciding to have an Ethernet cable running between the observatory and the house so that we could have good internet access, remote PC control and instant download. However, there was a brief period of time after the cable had been buried, but before we fed it into the house. During this window of opportunity, the new puppy decided to use the cable as a teething aid. The tattered remnants could not be rescued.
Soon after the observatory was built in Summer 2015, the original mount was replaced with a Mesu 200. Our pictures started to get a little better. The current set up comprises a Skywatcher Esprit 120 with a QSI 690 and Lodestar X2 off-axis guider. Bolted on top of that is a Williams Optics Star 71 (Mark I) coupled to a Moravian G2-8300.
Our QSI 690 came with a full set of Astrodons, including 3nm narrowbands. We had been very sceptical about the benefits of these ‘overpriced’ filters. But as soon as the first subs started rolling in, we had the awful realisation that we were going to have to get 3nm filters for our Star 71 rig too. I asked one of my (teenage) sons how much he thought these 36 mm un-mounted filters might cost. He replied, “It’s a small bit of glass … £10 … And even that would be a rip off”. Sometimes, I feel guilty at the thought of the damage that astrophotography has done to our sons’ inheritance.
We still get caught out by our own ineptitude. Only a couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting in front of ‘TeamViewer’ sagely pontificating to my long-suffering wife that “the seeing must be going off, my dear – that is the only thing that can explain the rapidly deteriorating SNR on PHD2”. When we went to check, however, the night seemed crystal clear. Of course, one of us had forgotten to turn on the dew heater.
A crumb of consolation is to be found in the knowledge that we are not alone. Last night I watched a well-known European astronomer, using his very expensive American telescope and fancy Italian mount, puzzle over why he could not locate any suitable on-screen stars for his focus routine. It took him a couple of minutes before he realised that he had forgotten to take the front lens cover off his scope.
My most serious foul-up happened only a few months ago. I decided to ‘improve’ the polar alignment of our Mesu 200. In doing so, I slackened off the ‘Latitude Eyebolt Locking Bolt’ way (and I mean way) more than I should have. In fact, in the dark, I unscrewed the thing entirely. This allowed the top plate of the mount to swing forward rapidly, carrying the entire dual rig – scopes, cameras and all – with it. When I got it connected back together the mount was making strange noises (I’m not sure the polar alignment was any better, either).
Thankfully, Lucas Mesu is a great guy and we just happened to be travelling to Holland later that month. Lucas was able to fix the rig in half an hour and charged us nothing for the repair (he just had to realign some rollers). Lucas even offered us coffee and cake. I harbour a sneaking suspicion that he and his family were anxious to set eyes upon the idiot who had bought an expensive mount, and yet didn’t bother to find out how to use it.
Astrophotography places great demands on equipment. One of the things that has surprised us is how often that equipment has been found wanting. Of the ten telescopes that we have purchased over the last couple of years, three had to be returned or replaced because of gross optical abnormalities. These were all expensive telescopes from well-known companies – one of them is considered a premium brand (one might even use the term ’boutique’). Likewise, we have had three CCD cameras that have had issues of one sort or another that required replacement or repair. Perhaps we have been unlucky, but certainly our rate of ‘duds’ has led us to conclude that one of the most important things for an astrophotographer to look for is a good retailer. Our last telescope choice (the Esprit 120) was predicated upon the fact that our ‘GOTO’ retailer did not supply any of the alternative telescopes that we were considering.
The acquisition of reliable equipment, setting it up correctly and capturing good data, of course, a considerable challenge. However, the main lesson we have learned is that, in many ways, data collection is the easy part. The real art comes in the processing. As beginners, we tried too hard to make visible every last speck of cosmic dust. We over-processed, pushed contrast too far, oversaturated and over-sharpened. This remains our biggest weakness. We have had our best results when we have achieved a measure of restraint, even if that has meant that we have not extracted every last ounce of detail that might be in the data.
In this once again, we have been helped by fellow astrophotographers. I am always surprised by how generous people are with their time, and how readily they pass on ‘tips and tricks’ that they probably had to learn the hard way. This advice often comes directly from some of the very best imagers in the game. Skilled craftsmen (and women) in other fields are often considerably less willing to pass on their ‘secrets’.
Any success that we may have had has been down in very large part to these people. There is not enough space to thank everyone for their past and continuing assistance. We are extremely grateful to all of them. Indeed, we are just starting to pluck up the courage to have another go at M31…
We hope to keep making steady progress in our processing. We now have seem to have two functioning telescopes and cameras and there are countless objects that we can image with these two rigs. However, a big issue in the UK remains the weather. If we get one or (occasionally) two images a month we feel we are doing well.
The next step? “I will not contemplate remote imaging. I will not contemplate remote imaging. I will not contemplate…”
If you’d like to be the next Feautured Backyard Astronomer, send us your story and [email protected] (you have to be a European citizen to qualify).