A Dark Night

Another new Moon weekend, another observing outing to Mauna Kea. With some shiny new astro equipment to play with I decided to load for photography instead of visual. Disassembling the photographic mount I realized it had not been taken apart in over two years, setup in the garage and used in the driveway. I did not expect to be alone, a few other local observers had indicated plans to get out this night.

Omega Centauri
Omega Centauri, NGC5139, sum of 31 x 1min exposures, AT6RC and Canon 60D
Worry on the drive up, the cloud deck seemed quite high. I was concerned that the Mauna Kea VIS, at 9,200ft, may be in the clouds. With wipers and headlights on, through the heavy fog I drove, not encouraging when you expect to use a telescope. The worry persisted until the last switchback, ascending through the last wisps of cloud just a few hundred feet below the VIS to behold a cloudless blue sky overhead.

As expected the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station was a zoo. A dozen summit tour buses added to a heavy Saturday night crowd. The parking lot was full with even more cars parked along the road. Not a real problem, the tour buses use reserved spaces right in front of the building. They pull out about an hour before sunset, headed for the summit with their customers. We swoop in on the vacated parking spaces and set up our gear.

A trio of telescopes set up for astrophtography at the Mauna Kea VIS
The crowd is an interesting experience. Well over a hundred folks waiting for dark and the evening program. There are the usual issues of headlights and camera flashes. It may not be all that dark for a while, but we gain a nice paved place to setup, and there is electrical power available. The crowd will slowly wane as the night progresses, mostly gone by 9pm, driven off by the cold. At 10pm the VIS closes and the remaining lights are turned off.

In addition to the VIS telescopes, there were quite a few local amateurs taking advantage of a moonless Saturday night. Cliff and Tony brought Cliff’s 24″ Dob, a two person job to move that ‘scope. Wayne brought photography gear. Mike was likewise set up for photography, planets instead of deep sky, using a Flea 3 and an ancient 10″ Celestron. Olivier brought his 19″ Pricilla, providing plenty of glass for visual astronomy while the cameras exposed for hours.

It was Malalo o Ka Po Lani, cultural night at the VIS, with a special lecture. This meant a large crowd, most of whom stayed to enjoy the perfect skies the mountain provided this night. They wandered around the telescopes asking lots of questions. While the photographic ‘scopes did not offer views through the eyepiece, there was still a lot of interest in the process. I chatted with many folks as I worked, fiddling with the complex equipment necessary to take photos of the sky.

It was quite the gathering of Losmandy G-11’s! Wayne brought two, Mike brought one to carry the old 10″ Celestron, I had mine setup for photography with the AT6RC. Add the three that the Mauna Kea VIS uses! A testament to these well-built mounts, some of which are two decades old.

The astrophoto gear was working nicely. There were a few issues to deal with at the beginning of the night, the usual new gear stuff. A few things I need to fix before next time… need to remount the guider so I can co-align it with the imaging ‘scope. I need to mount a real finder, and make it easier to hunt down the targets. But overall I was pleased, the new setup worked as I hoped it would.

SBIG ST-i Autoguider
The SBIG ST-i autoguider mounted to the top of the AT6RC telescope
I will write more about the SBIG ST-i later. The short version… Much easier to use than the ST-4, accurate, painless acquisition of guide stars, it just locked on and stayed there. The only real drawback is the inability to dispense with a computer. I recently re-built one of my older laptops for use as the astrophoto machine. But since the computer is going to be there, I may as well use it, time to integrate the DSLR with the computer and shoot tethered. I have the software, just that I had tried to keep it simple in the field.

Another pleasant surprise was the ease of focusing with the AT6RC with a Bahtinov mask. I have been wondering about the stock focuser on the new ‘scope, how well does it handle the heavy DSLR camera. One lesson is that it locks the focus quite well, I noticed no drift each time I checked focus. Indeed, at one point I pulled out the 60D, swapped the focal reducer and adapter onto the 20Da and checked focus again, it was still perfect.

While my camera took exposure after exposure, I took in the views that big glass can produce. Bouncing back and forth between Cliff 24″ and Olivier’s 19″. No surprise for a spring session, galaxies were in rich supply. We viewed a lot of the showpiece objects, from Ursa Major to Virgo and Corvus.

This night was the type of night we hope for when planning an observing outing… Not too cold, no strong wind, and no clouds. Just a dark sky to delight the imagination all night long.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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