Endeavour’s last flight

This past week I was fortunate enough to be in Houston when the Space Shuttle Endeavour was flown through on its way to California. I have never been lucky enough to actually see one of the shuttles in person so I made the quick trip to the other side of town to shoot a few images of this space shuttle viewing put on by NASA. It was truely awe inspiring.

Space Shutle Endeavour on a 747

To think, this shuttle right in front of me has been launched into orbit 25 times, over two hundred and fifty miles high each time, traveled over 122,000,000 miles and safely returned 154 astronauts to earth.

shuttle on display This voyage would be the last time anyone would ever see a space shuttle on top of the 747 used to transport it from the landings in California to the launch pad in Florida. Indeed, this was the last time one would ever be in the air at all. I used this opportunity to shoot the normal images above and one special image here:

space shuttle Endeavour

What’s so special about this picture? This is a resized copy of an set of sticthed images which are almost 200 megapixels in size, that means it can be printed at just over eight feet wide with no enlargement and be razor sharp from inches away. To give you an idea, here is a small glimpse of what a section of the image would look like at full resolution:

side of shuttle enlarged Honestly, because the blog resizes images, this image shows a little too much and would actually be zoomed in a little more than what you see here.

This is truely an end of an era. No matter how well the new Orion spacecraft performs, it will never reach the majesty and beauty of space shuttle like Endeavour. Never making it to see one of these beauties launch will remain one of my greatest regrets. Hopefully that will spur me to make it to watch something other than a space shuttle launch.

I hope you enjoyed my space shuttle Endeavour images!

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Explore Scientific AR127 review

I recently bought an Explore Scientific AR127 (sometimes called the ES127 or just ES AR127) and thought I would add my experiences to the other ES AR127 reviews.

Back in October I bought an Orion 90mm f/11 scope to do visual. I didn’t want to spend much because I really don’t do much visual and didn’t have much of a desire to. Recently I have been wanting something a little more, a little larger. Not too large mind you because it won’t fit in the car with all the AP rig already in there (and I drive a full size car, Buick Lucerne). I looked around for something in the 120-130mm range, any larger and it would be too big a pain in the rear to use and I would have to have a new mount for sure. Too small and there won’t be much of an improvement over what I already have. I also really hate the finderscope on the old Orion but it used a weird mount so you can’t just slap a different finder in there. I would also like to use all the 2″ equipment I already have for my APO since the APO will be imaging while I use this. I wanted something much higher end than the standard starter 120mm scopes offered by Orion and Celestron, but where to look?

All the reviews pointed to Explore Scientific refractors, specifically the Explore Scientific AR127, as the finest non-ED/APO out there right now even discounting issues with their focusers. I chatted and emailed them and got really depressed. The chat was about the finderscope they include, an 8×50 finder with a proprietary mount, and the possibility of buying just an OTA with rings as I have no need for the finder or diagonal in their “kit”.

The employee in the chat session, Langlee, informed me that they had no alternative to the finder on the AR127 but I could contact one of their distributors, Camera Concepts, as they carried many different types of adapters.

After a quick call to Camera Concepts I was relayed a message from the owner and told to use double sided tape as they had no adapters for the Explore Scientific AR127. Yes, that is why I am looking to get a high end achro scope, so I can mount my accessories with double sided tape. Langlee also said they could probably get me just the OTA but he had to talk to accounting and would get back to me. So on to email which was the response about buying just the OTA and rings, which was from David. After many volleys back and forth the general gist of the conversation was that no, they would not sell me anything but their kit, and I should be happy to have it. I also found out that they have an entire machine shop dedicated to things like making finderscope mounts fit for customers (seems Langlee had no idea that part of the company even existed). So would they take the existing finderscope, mount and diagonal in trade for putting a $15 aftermarket vixen style shoe on the scope before they shipped it to me? Absolutely not because it is “Hard to pay our machinist with parts.  He prefers cash for some reason.” Yes, that is exactly what David told a prospective customer.

So I have to assume that even they don’t believe their finderscope and diagonal is worth $15. But enough of that, I want the Explore Scientific AR127 for the optics which are supposedly first rate, and indeed David challenged me to find another doublet with equal optics which he claims are 1/4 wave or less PV. This was right before David suggested velcro instead of double sided tape for my finder, LOL! So you may ask, if I was already this unhappy with their customer service, why would I buy their scope? Simple, I could not find anyone with a scope that had comparable optics in a comparable price range, anywhere, or I certainly would have bought elsewhere. Because of their terrible customer service, I decided to buy my AR127 from a different vendor, such as from Amazon HERE instead of direct from ES to add a safety net into the equation so I did not have to deal with ES at all.

Explore Scientific AR127 So here is the Explore Scientific AR127 mounted and ready for the night’s observing. How did she do?

Optics: First rate for an achro. Of course not even in the same league as my Orion APO, but then again it is larger and a fraction of the price. Views of stars shows some CA around them, but surprisingly enough Saturn and the Moon show only very minor CA. In fact, the views of the moon were amazing. This scope takes power like nobody! I even went to my 5mm Stratus and it held up well although it preferred the 8mm. Of course this is with my Orion 2″ diagonal. Note the three sets of collimation screws in the image below:

Explore Scientific AR127 objective  

Overall build quality of the Explore Scientific AR127: The tube is nice, paint is nice, rails and rings are very nice. The handle at the top is a really nice touch although it would be pretty useless to mount anything but since I have no need to mount anything I like it. Dew shield is not retractable like my Orion so the scope is pretty long.

Focuser: Although it performed fairly well I see why people don’t like it. It feels cheap, the lock works….kinda, and the tensioner works…kinda, there is no scale printed on it, and it does not rotate. The two knobs for lock and tension are so close together and so close to the same size, I am honestly not sure which I was turning at any given time. I see a new GSO focuser in this scope’s future. I wish it had a focuser like the one on my Orion.

Explore Scientific AR127 focuser knobs Documentation: You mean the packing slip? You must because that was all that was in the box.

Lens cap: Large, with a molded in handle, but plastic and not screw in. I much prefer the aluminum screw in of my Orion, but again, the Orion was a much more expensive scope.

Overall: I think I will keep the Explore Scientific AR127 because the optics are really good. I have a new finder shoe and scope on the way from Orion and am looking at focusers right now. With those two replacements this will be an excellent scope. As it stands I feel I overpaid ($649 with free shipping) for what I got, but maybe the sale of the diagonal and finder on the bay will help bring the cost down a little.

On a different note I mounted this scope on my Orion Skyview Deluxe mount for now which handled the load very well. I did have to make one modification which was a dovetail adapter from ScopeStuff.com as shown here:

Right view of the ScopeStuff adapter and here:

Left view of the ScopeStuff adapter  

I can’t say enough good about this dovetail adapter and the service from ScopeStuff. They shipped so fast I thought they made a mistake telling me when it shipped (same day I ordered it, well after 5pm their time) and it arrived two days later perfectly. The only downside was I had to buy longer bolts and more washers since I was running an aftermarket mounting plate but that was totally my problem and not theirs. If I had been using the factory plate what they sent would have worked fine. If you decide to get your own Explore Scientific AR127 (or ES127, whichever you want to call it) please use THIS LINK to help offset the costs of running this site.

I hope you enjoyed my little review of my Explore Scientific AR127!

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All 110 Messier objects imaged, finally

Messier objects are not only some of the most accessible deep sky objects, but also the most beautiful. I guess I should not say all 110 Messier objects finally as some people never complete this, and others take years. I have completed it in less than a year. While this is quite the accomplishment I should point out quite a bit of my images of these targets really stink because I rushed the process.

This may seem like a stupid thing to do, or it was done just so I could say I got all 110 in less than a year, it was actually done at breakneck speed to teach me a lot of lessons including the importance of preparation, scheduling of targets, meridian flips, and much much more. For every crummy image there has been a lot learned, and that is worth way more than a really good image. I can now get setup, aligned, on target and imaging with incredible speed and accuracy. What used to take me two hours can now be done in less than one with greater accuracy than before. I can also do the same in reverse, breaking down and packing up in less than thirty minutes. Here are all 110 Messier objects images comprising the entire Messier catalogue:

all 110 Messier objects The other really nice thing about doing all 110 Messier objects this fast was that I got to see a lot of amazing objects in a very short period of time. I saw open clusters, globular clusters, galaxies, asterisms and a wide array of nebulae. This was an incredibly rewarding project for me and I urge everyone to view and/or image as many Messier objects as they can, they won’t regret it.

You can find out more about the Messier objects, and Charles Messier, at Wikipedia. You can also hear about my visual observations of most of the Messier objects and as well as others on my audio commentary pages.

I hope you enjoyed images of all 110 Messier objects!

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Basic spectral classes finished, plus a couple extra!

Stars are classified into spectral classes, of which there are seven basic classes and several more esoteric ones. The seven basics are O, B, A, F, G, K and M and they are shown here along with a few others:


The other classes show are C for Carbon stars (very old stars that are burning out), S (late type giants) and W which are the most interesting of them all, Wolf-Rayet which are massive stars with howling solar winds. If I do absolutely nothing else with spectroscopy it has been a huge success in teaching me more about stars and the wild variety of them out in the universe.

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2012 Venus transit from Smithville Texas

I hope you got to see the 2012 Venus transit because most likely no one you know will still be alive when the next one happens. My wife and I went over to just outside Smithville with a couple other members of the Huntsville Amateur Astronomy Society and set up to image the event.

Setup for 2012 Venus transit I set up my main scope, a camera with a 300mm lens and of course a pair of binoculars to watch with. It started out pretty cloudy and never really improved, we did however get lucky enough to have many breaks in the cloud cover to get some awesome views.

Plane crosses sun during 2012 Venus transit The above is a composite of many images to show the movement of Venus across the surface of the sun, and yes, there is an airplane there as well! After some serious research, and a lot of help from Steven at Austin-Bergstrom airport, I am fairly confident we have identified the aircraft in the photo. Keep in mind that this is not a definitive ID as we obviously can not see the tail number for a positive ID. Based off radar information from the airport there is a high probability this is Delta flight 1005, tail number N335NB. The plane is an Airbus A319 aircraft that was leaving Austin-Bergstrom airport at approximately 19:55 (7:55pm) CDT. At the time the image was taken the aircraft was climbing past 2000ft at just over 200kts just starting a turn to its right to head for its destination of Minneapolis. To make the image even more interesting, the airport was approximately 40 miles away (direct line, not road miles) at a heading of 287 degrees and the sun was just below 17 degrees above the horizon. Lastly, I mentioned that I also had a camera there which was using Baader solar film, here is an image from that setup:

2012 Venus transit with different camera The 2012 Venus transit was amazing. The weather forecast said I should not have been able to see it, much less image it. I have never been so happy the weather guy was wrong!

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Annular solar eclipse from Albuquerque, NM

My wife and I decided to travel to Albuquerque New Mexico for the annular solar eclipse on May 20th, 2012. An annular solar eclipse is where the moon comes directly between the sun and our little earth but isn’t close enough to the Earth to completely block out the sun. We choose that Albuquerque because it was far enough west to see the complete annular part of the eclipse and was directly on the center line where the moon would be exactly in the center. Here are some compilations of the images I took while there:

poster created from images taken during the annular solar eclipse

Collage of images taken during the annular solar eclipseI had two cameras on my main telescope and mount. The first was a Nikon D7000 mounted via prime focus shooting through the telescope and a Thousand Oaks glass filter. The second camera was a Nikon D90 mounted on the side of the telescope shooting through a Nikon 70-300ED-IF lens covered with a homemade filter using Baader solar film.

We also observed the solar eclipse through solar film and protected binoculars.

While not my first experience viewing a solar eclipse, my last experience was probably almost forty years ago. Although I do remember the experience as a small child, this was much more rewarding. If you get the chance to experience a solar eclipse of any kind I urge you to take some time off and go enjoy it.

While in the area, no astronomy buff would dare leave before seeing the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, also know as the Very Large Array or VLA. This has been included in many movies such as Contact, Terminator Salvation and Interstellar and is an absolutely awesome place to visit.

closeup of the side of a radio telescope

The pictures do not really convey how amazing, or huge this place is. Each dish in the Very Large Array are twenty five meters across, or over eighty feet. That would be impressive alone however there are twenty seven of these dishes on rails similar to a railroad track. Each arm in the huge Y pattern of the tracks is approximately thirteen miles long. This distance between the telescopes is why it is called the Very Large Array.

An array of radio telescopesThey have a great visitor area and unbelievably allow you to roam around the area way more than I had expected. Tours are even given at certain times although there were none while we were there and since we were in transit when we stopped here we could not stay as long as I would have liked. If you get the chance, it is a fantastic place to visit.

More information on the Very Large Array can be found on their website.

I hope you enjoyed the images of the solar eclipse and very large array!  

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New spectroscopy software Rspec, and Arcturus revisited

My first foray into spectroscopy was barely a month ago and already I am shifting gears. It turns out it is pretty straight forward to image the spectra of stars, but processing it and making something of the image is another story entirely.

Like a lot of people I would imagine, I started using a program called Vspec, mainly because it was free and also because there are a lot of people using it. The problem I ran into rather quickly was that if you are starting from scratch and understand nothing about the spectrum, the software or the entire theory of spectroscopy then Vspec can be a bear to figure out.

So I broke down and ordered Rspec from the same guy I bought the Star Analyser 100 from and man did that make my life easier. In just a few days I went from things I knew were wrong but had no idea how to fix to this:


Which not only am I fairly sure has some semblance of being correct, but I actually understand some of! Interesting things about this profile include the 5850-5900 range showing sodium and calcium absorption lines, 5160-5180 showing a large concentration of magnesium lines, lines just before and just after 5400 showing iron and the dark lines just before 4300 showing CH or methane.

Now admittedly I looked up the spectrum in a reference book and got the information for the spectral lines from that book, but the cool part about it is I could actually see what they were talking about and their observations matched my images and curves. So either I am getting more correct in my image taking and processing, or more delusional in my old age, either of which works for me 🙂

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