An evening in the hobby

I’ve gotten into quite a good routine, sequence, whatever you might call it, for my hobby. While it’s an excellent hobby when it comes to complex things to fiddle around with, once you actually get some dark, clear skies, you don’t want to waste a minute, particularly in the UK.

Not having an observatory means a lot of my focus is on a quick setup, but it also means I’ve gotten completely remote operation (on a budget) down pretty well.

I took a decision to leave my setup outdoors some time ago, and bought a good quality cover rated for 365-days-of-the-year protection from Telegizmos. So far it’s survived, despite abuse from cats and birds. The telescope, with all its imaging gear (most of the time), sits underneath on its stock tripod, on some anti-vibration pads from Celestron. I also got some specialist insurance and set a camera nearby – it’s pretty well out of the way and past a bit of security anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful. Setting up outside has been the best thing I’ve done so far, and is further evidence in support of building an observatory!

The telescope, illuminated from an oversize flat frame generator, after a night of imaging.

Keeping the camera mounted means I can re-use flat frames between nights, though occasionally I will take it out to re-collimate if it’s been a while. The computer that connects to all the hardware remains, too – a Raspberry Pi 4 mounted in a Maplin project case on the telescope tube.

This means everything stays connected and all I have to do is walk out, plug a mains extension cable in, bring out a 12V power supply, and plug in two cables – one for the mount, and one for the rest. Some simple snap-fit connector blocks distribute the 12V and 5V supplies around the various bits of equipment on the telescope.

That makes for quite calm setup, which I can do hours in advance of darkness in these early season nights. The telescope’s already cooled down to ambient, so there’s no delay there, either. I’ve already taken steps to better seal up my telescope tube to protect against stray light, which also helps keep any would-be house guests out.

My latest addition to the setup is an old IP camera so I can remotely look at the telescope position. This eliminates the need for me to take my laptop outside whenever the telescope is moving – I can confirm the position of the telescope and hit the “oh no please stop” button if anything looks amiss, like the telescope swinging towards a tripod leg.

I use the KStars/Ekos ecosystem for telescope control and imaging, so this all runs on a Linux laptop which I usually VNC into from my desktop. This means I can pull data off the laptop as I go and work on e.g. calibration of data on the desktop.

A normal evening – PixInsight, in this case looking at some integration approaches for dark frames, and VNC into KStars/Ekos, with PHD2 guiding, and a webcam view of the telescope

So other than 10 minutes at the start and 10 minutes in the early hours of the following morning my observing nights are mostly spent indoors sat in front of a computer. That makes for a fairly poor hobby in terms of getting out of my seat and moving around, but a really good hobby in terms of staying warm!

I do often wander out for half an hour or so and try to get some visual observation in, using a handheld Opticron monocular. Honestly, the monocular isn’t much use – it’s hard to hold steady enough, and low-magnification. Just standing out under the stars and trying to spot some constellations and major stars is satisfying, but I’d quite like to get a visual telescope I can leave set up and use while the imaging rig is doing its thing. That’s a fair bit of time+money away though, and I’d prefer to get the observatory built first. On a dark night, lying down and staring up at the milky way is quite enough to be getting on with.

A typical night, though, involves sitting indoors with the telescope under its cover, and yelling at clouds or the moon (which throws out enough light to ruin contrast on deep space objects).

On that basis I’ve been thinking about other ways to enjoy the hobby that don’t involve dark, clear nights. Some good narrowband filters would let me image on moonlit nights, but run into the many hundreds of pounds, putting a set of Ha/OIII/SII filters around £1k.

Narrowband image, shot in the hydrogen alpha emission line using a Baader 7nm filter – cheap but cheerful – of some of the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula; ~7.5 hours of capture

Making my own telescope, though, struck me as a fun project. It’s something quite frequently done, but the bit that most interested me is mirror making. That’s quite a cheap project (£100 or so) to get started on and should take a few months of evenings, so ought to keep me busy for a while – so that’s the next thing to do. I’ve decided to start with an 8″ f/5 mirror – not only is it quite a small and simple mirror, I could place it directly into my existing telescope without having to spend any more money. I’ve been doing lots of research, reading books on the topic and watching videos from other mirror-makers.

And that is definitely one of the recurring themes throughout the hobby – there’s always something to improve on, and nothing is trivially grasped. Everything takes a bit of commitment and thought. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.